Peace in the Middle East? Kerry under fire–from Israel

As of today, Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime partisan to Israeli interests, is condemned by Israelis–for being interested in peace at all. According Israeli Defense Minister Yaalon, Kerry approaches peace with “an unfathomable obsession and a messianic feeling.” According to another statesman, Kerry’s “pressure” on Israel is “obsessive” and “may have anti-Semitic undertones.” According to a group of Israeli rabbis, Kerry’s peace initiative amounts to “a declaration of war against the Creator and Ruler of the Universe.”

Kerry’s Congressional record on Israel is one of unambiguous partisan support. However, now that he is trying to negotiate a peace deal, Israel’s long-held position against a peace compromise, even one extremely favorable to Israel, is being exposed.

This history of land-instead-of-peace goes back at least as far as 1971, when Israel rejected a comprehensive peace deal with Egypt in order to retain more territory. Egypt’s readiness to sign a peace treaty with Israel was considered at the time a major breakthrough in the eyes of the world powers, including the US, the Soviet Union, and the UN, which all supported the UNSC 242 framework. [1] Israel balked however, stipulating, under the guidance of Moshe Dayan and Israel Galilee, “a categorical refusal to restore the previous boundary” (in the words of historian Avi Shlaim). The Israeli position disappointed Yitzhak Rabin, then ambassador to Washington, who recorded in his memoirs that “For the first time in the chronicles of the Middle East conflict, an Arab country–indeed, the largest Arab country and the leader of the Arab world–had issued an official document expressing its readiness to enter into a peace agreement with Israel!” Israel, however, refused to agree to withdraw from Egypt’s territory, thus continuing the conflict. The fateful clause delivered by the Israeli cabinet was: “Israel will not withdraw to the pre-5 June 1967 lines” [2]. Haim Bar-Lev, of the Labor Party, explained that “I think that we could obtain a peace settlement on the basis of the earlier [pre-June 1967] borders. If I were persuaded that this is the maximum that we might obtain, I would say: agreed. But I think that it is not the maximum. I think that if we continue to hold out, we will obtain more.” In the words of historian Norman Finkelstein, “Israel’s refusal to join Egypt in acceptance of the international consensus killed any prospects for a diplomatic settlement,” a matter which “made war all but inevitable.” [3] For Israel, then as today, the principle of territorial acquisition beyond the ’67 borders trumped any initiative toward peace.

The crucial dimension of the peace process is, of course, the UNSC 242 framework (unanimously adopted by the Security Council in 1967), which involves the principle of the non-acquisition of territory through conflict, calling specifically for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” a condition Israel has refused to comply with, and which the US has refused to enforce.

The reason Israel consistently refuses compromise is because it is under little pressure to do so. In a position of extreme power asymmetry, Israel holds all the cards, and the Palestinians none. There is no meaningful pressure on Israel to compromise. The only real pressure, in the present situation, would come from the US, which continues, however, to offer Israel its unconditional support: military aid, economic aid, and diplomatic protection at the UN Security Council.

Hence, we find Kerry, longtime partisan supporter of Israel, under attack from Israeli quarters for daring to attempt to broker any peace deal at all. Haaretz reports today that Kerry has been subject to “a barrage of attacks issued by top Israeli officials – among them Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy minister Naftali Bennett.” Kerry is correct to have stated, earlier today, that “there are some people in Israel … who don’t support the peace process. There are specifically some people who don’t support two states. There are some people who don’t want any restraint on settlements whatsoever.” Unfortunately, those happen to be the people in power.



[1] William Quandt’s standard history, for example: “In the joint communique issued on May 29, the United States and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their support of UN Resolution 242 adn of the Jarring mission.” Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967, 2005, 95.

[2] Shlaim, The Iron Wall, 2000, 301. See also, for extensive and detailed treatment, Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 2003, 157f.

[3] Finkelstein, 158.

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