Last Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a lengthy and impassioned speech on Israel and Palestine that will go down as a major moment in American Middle East diplomacy. Despite speaking for more than an hour, weaving together Israeli, Palestinian, and American narratives and outlining principles for a two-state peace deal, Kerry delivered a message to Israel that was very simple: “The status quo is leaning toward one state and perpetual occupation,” he said, and America “cannot be true to our own values” while allowing that to take place.
Kerry’s speech focussed on a familiar theme: the settlements are imperilling the two-state solution. As a longtime advocate for Palestinian rights, it is clear to me that the time for this speech was fifty years ago. As early as 1968, according to a National Intelligence Estimate from that year, the U.S. understood that settlement expansion would make it “increasingly difficult” for Israel to pull out of Palestinian territory. Now hundreds of settlements and outposts, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, perforate the West Bank, and settlers play an outsized role in Israeli politics. As Kerry noted, their leadership has advanced “unprecedented new legislation that would legalize most of those outposts” under Israeli law, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition depends on pro-settlement parties, supports. Settlement development has only accelerated during the American-mediated peace process, even as American military aid and diplomatic cover for Israel has continued.
Nearly four years ago, in a House hearing about the window for a two-state solution, Kerry said, “I think we have some period of time—in one to one and a half to two years—or it’s over.” In his speech on Wednesday, he said he remained convinced “that there is still a way forward if the responsible parties are willing to act.” How could he possibly be telling the Israelis that they must save something he himself said expired two years ago? Kerry and many others around the world know that the Israelis have chosen permanent occupation. In early 2014, Kerry warned, in a closed-door meeting, a recording of which was leaked to the Daily Beast, that if peace efforts failed Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state.” He quickly walked back his use of the term (which echoed remarks made by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak), but that won’t seem as necessary in the future. Israel has chosen the apartheid road. What is happening now is that the world is being forced to confront it.
Two weeks ago, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that expressed many of Kerry’s concerns, reaffirming that the settlements constitute a “flagrant violation” of international law, and that the trends on the ground are “steadily eroding the two-State solution and entrenching a one-State reality.” Fourteen of fifteen countries supported the resolution, while the U.S., notably, abstained, drawing condemnations from Netanyahu and, seemingly, from President-elect Donald Trump. In fact, the United States voted for very similar language in 1980, in U.N. Security Council Resolution 465. What is novel about the past week’s efforts is the widespread recognition that they are last-ditch. After Kerry’s speech, the French Foreign Ministry released a statement of support, saying that France agrees “that it is necessary and urgent to implement the two-state solution,” adding that the situation “was in jeopardy.”
For Palestinians, most of whom are under the age of fifty, the idea of perpetual occupation is nothing new—it has defined their entire lives. A recent poll of Palestinians in the occupied territories, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, showed that sixty-five per cent of respondents believed the two-state solution was no longer possible owing to settlement expansion. That number, which has been above fifty per cent for at least the past six years, jumped nearly ten per cent between September and December, following the American election. Fadi Quran, a senior campaigner for the online advocacy network Avaaz, who lives in the West Bank, wrote to me that he believes Kerry’s parameters “were too narrow to ensure a life of freedom and dignity for our people.” Meanwhile, a majority of Israelis oppose dismantling most of the settlements and any division of Jerusalem, desires that have been reflected by the policies of their government. Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that a plurality of Israeli Jews believe that continued settlement construction—expanding civilian enclaves in hostile occupied territory—actually helps Israel’s security.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has provoked increasing partisan divisions on Israel in the United States, allying himself with Mitt Romney in 2012 and circumventing Obama to address a joint meeting of Congress, both houses of which were controlled by Republicans, in 2015, warning against the Iran deal weeks before an Israeli election. The G.O.P. continues to see Israel through a Biblical or national-security lens that puts it on the American side of a Judeo-Christian confrontation with “radical Islam.” Democrats, in turn, have grown increasingly alienated by Israel’s denial of rights to Palestinians. Last month, a poll conducted by Shibley Telhami, of the Brookings Institution, found that sixty per cent of Democrats believe the U.S. government should enact sanctions or take more serious action against Israel in response to its continued settlement construction, a twelve per cent increase from 2014. Sixty-five per cent supported Obama’s putting his weight behind a U.N. resolution to end settlement construction in the West Bank before he leaves office.
Kerry spoke as American leadership takes a significant turn, away from President Obama’s vision of an open, multicultural society and toward the closed, white-majoritarian one represented by Trump. Under the circumstances, the policy proposals of Kerry’s speech mean little. The President-elect seems prepared to greenlight Israeli settlement expansion, move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and perhaps even support annexation of the West Bank. David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and Trump’s choice for Ambassador to Israel, has funnelled millions of dollars to an Israeli settlement deep in the West Bank. The Israeli right sees this as an opportunity not to be missed. “The combination of changes in the United States, in Europe, and in the region provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything,” Naftali Bennett, the openly annexationist Jewish Home Party leader, has said.
During the past week, Netanyahu has closely allied himself with Trump: the Israelis reached out to the President-elect on the eve of the U.N. vote, and the Prime Minister exchanged supportive tweets with him after the fact. Netanyahu, like Trump, captured political power by playing on voters’ fears: of Arabs, Iran, Obama, and of any concessions. He has said that he wants to “surround the entire state of Israel with a fence.” He has exploited fears of minority voters to win elections, saying, in a Facebook video last year, that the right-wing government was “in danger” because “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”
Several more years of settlement building and entrenching occupation, which now seem all but assured, will turn more Americans who support equality over tribalism against Israeli policies. The most important moment in Kerry’s speech was when he noted that, if the occupation continues, millions of Palestinians will continue to live in a state that is “separate and unequal.” He continued, “Would an Israeli accept living that way? Would an American accept living that way? Will the world accept it?” For Americans, this language harkens back to the era of Jim Crow, which left a legacy of institutional racism that we are still struggling to overcome.
Surely, some Americans will have no problem supporting an Israel that has dropped any pretense of peace. But most Americans will see it differently. Freedom, justice, and equality are our foundational values, even if they have been imperfectly applied, and they are exactly what have been denied to Palestinians for decades.