The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has bedeviled not only the parties but successive American presidents and diplomats for decades. Occasional signs of progress have inevitably been followed by disappointment and recriminations. It is now clear that the Obama administration has been no exception and, despite the apparent intention of Donald Trump to follow a very different path, it is likely that his administration will fare no better and perhaps worse.
Israel has generally enjoyed broad, bipartisan support although an increasingly vocal minority, on college campuses and elsewhere, has taken up the cause of the Palestinians and attacked Israel with misguided calls to “Boycott, Divest and Sanction.” The bipartisan support for Israel also became strained during the Obama administration as a result of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement as well as a difficult relationship with President Obama. The tensions between Obama and Netanyahu reached new heights with the President’s decision to abstain (and therefore permit passage of) Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Jewish settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank as “dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-State solution based on the 1967 lines.” The Resolution and the American abstention provoked an angry response not only from Prime Minister Netanyahu but from Congressional Republicans and, most notably, from President-elect Trump.
Controversy over the abstention was heightened on Thursday by Secretary Kerry’s lengthy and detailed speech explaining and defending that action. Kerry’s speech offered an eloquent plea for a “two state solution and a compelling analysis of how Israeli settlements in the West Bank undermine the prospects for such a solution. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Kerry’s position, it is a speech well worth reading in full to gain a useful insight into the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, Kerry was less persuasive as to whether a two state solution remains a viable possibility and still less as to whether and how the chances of any solution would be advanced by Resolution 2334. Israel was unlikely to be swayed by the resolution, and one negative aspect of its passage may be to encourage Palestinians to defer resuming negotiations in favor of attempting pressure on Israel through claims at the International Criminal Court. (For a discussion of such claims, see Lawfare, “What UNSCR 2334 Could Mean Beyond the United Nations, and How the Trump Administration Can Respond.”)
It has long been the policy of the United States to support a “two state solution” under which independent states of Israel and Palestine would exist side by side in peace. That solution would require Israel to cede control of all or most of the West Bank. (The West Bank lies between Israel’s eastern border and Jordan’s western border marked by Jordan River. The territory had been annexed by Jordan in 1950 and was seized by Israel in the 1967 war. In 1988, Jordan relinquished any claim to it in favor of the Palestine Liberation Organization.) By now, however, a possible transfer of control over the West Bank to a Palestinian state has been made infinitely more complicated, and perhaps impractical, by the construction of Jewish settlements in the territory. There is a broad international consensus that such settlements are illegal under international law, and while American presidents have uniformly opposed their expansion, they have not always described the settlements as illegal. Past presidents had also allowed the passage of some resolutions opposed by Israel but vetoed those that appeared to be unduly harsh or one-sided in condemning Israel, as Resolution 2334 appeared to many.
The Resolution focused primarily on Israeli settlements and while Kerry acknowledged that settlements were by no means all of the problem, he underscored their their importance:
Let me emphasize: this is not to say that the settlements are the whole or even primary cause of the conflict – of course they are not. Nor can you say that if they were removed you would have peace without a broader agreement – you would not.
Yet the settlements have become an increasingly serious obstacle to creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
He explained that the settlements are not merely concentrated along or near the 1967 border but are spread throughout the occupied territory:
There are over 80 settlements east of the separation barrier, many located in places that would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Does anyone seriously think that if they just stay where they are you could still have a viable Palestinian state? …. You may hear that these remote settlements aren’t a problem because they only take up a small percentage of the land. Again and again we have made clear that it’s not just a question of the overall amount of land available in the West Bank– it’s whether the land can be connected or is broken up into small parcels that could never constitute a real state.
The more outposts that are built, the more settlements expand, the less possible it is to create a contiguous state. So in the end, a settlement is not just the land it’s on, it’s also what the location does to the movement of people, what it does to the ability of a road to connect, what it does to the sense of statehood that is chipped away with each new construction. No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of the threat settlements pose to peace.
For a highly instructive map of the locations of the settlements, see the website of Americans For Peace Now.
Kerry also pointed out some of the pitfalls that would arise if the two state solution were abandoned in favor of a unitary Jewish state that included all of the West Bank:
There are currently about 2.75 million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, most of them in Areas A and B where they have limited autonomy. They are restricted in their daily movements by a web of checkpoints, and unable to travel into or out of the West Bank without a permit from the Israelis. So if there is only one state, you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank, with no real political rights, separate legal, education and transportation systems, vast income disparities, under a permanent military occupation that deprives of them of the most basic freedoms – separate but unequal. Nobody can explain how that works. Would an Israeli accept living that way? Would an American? Will the world accept it? If the occupation becomes permanent, over time the Palestinian Authority could dissolve and turn over all administrative and security responsibilities to the Israelis. What would happen then? Who would administer the schools and hospitals? Does Israel want to pay for the billions of dollars of lost international assistance that the PA now receives? Would the Israel Defense Force police the streets in every Palestinian city and town?
How would Israel respond to a growing civil rights movement from Palestinians demanding a right to vote, or widespread protests and unrest across the West Bank? How does Israel reconcile a permanent occupation with its democratic ideals?
Despite the force of Kerry’s argument, it is difficult to understand what constructive result he hoped to achieve or might actually result from either the Security Council resolution or his speech. Prime Minister Netanyahu could be expected to reject such public pressure as indeed he has quite emphatically. And the purpose of Kerry’s presentation was all the more doubtful in light of the fact that it came only a few weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump, who had already made it clear that he is far more sympathetic to Netanyahu’s posture (and his underlying strategy, to the extent there is one). Prior to Kerry’s speech, Trump’s approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians had been signaled by his repeated promises to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (as no other nation has done), and by announcement of his intention to appoint David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman is an outspoken advocate for, and supporter of, the Jewish settlements and had spoken derisively of American Jews who support a two state solution. Indeed, Friedman’s views have been described as being even to the right of Netanyahu. Trump had criticized the Security Council resolution before its passage, even taking the remarkable step of intervening with one of the Resolutions sponsors, Egypt. Finally, at dawn on the day Kerry spoke, he tweeted “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore.” He continued, “The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
It is regrettable, but possible, that as a result of the settlements already in place, as well as Palestinians’ own intransigence, a two state solution is no longer viable. Prime Minister Netanyahu has continued to express support for such resolution, but the sincerity of his support has been increasingly questioned in Israel and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some observers described Kerry’s speech as an elegy to a failed approach. Nevertheless, if the Trump administration is to reverse decades of American policy by abandoning a two state solution, it may provoke violent reactions in the region. At a minimum, President Trump will owe Israel, the Palestinians, world opinion—and the American public—a clear statement of his vision for the future of the West Bank. If he envisions a single state encompassing the West Bank, he or his administration will need to address the pertinent questions posed by Secretary Kerry with respect to such a state and Kerry’s fundamental conclusion that: “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both –and it won’t ever really be at peace.”
The demand for a strategic vision from the Trump administration should begin with the confirmation hearings not only on the nomination of David Friedman but on the nominations of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Perhaps the most constructive product of Kerry’s speech will be to provide a road map for the kind of examinations the Senate committees should conduct in those hearings.