The Art Of (Ineffectual) Diplomacy: Kerry says all Israeli settlements are ‘illegitimate’ but shouldn’t hamper peace process

Israel/PalestineUS Politics

It’s really something watching Secretary of State John Kerry tie himself in knots condemning Israeli provocations while insisting they mean nothing. Above is video of Kerry from a press conference yesterday in Bogota, Colombia saying the U.S. views “all Israeli settlements as illegitimate.” In the next breath Kerry went on to say he doesn’t think Israel’s announcement of over 1,000 new settlement units should effect peace talks. If you know how to square this circle, let us know.

If anything, Kerry’s strong statement against the settlements is shocking because there had been several indications in recent days that Kerry’s policy was to say nothing about settlements at all, lest Israeli PM Netanyahu feels pressure and takes a powder. 

At yesterday’s daily press briefing at the State Department, reporters pressed spokesperson Marie Harf about the lack of an American response to the latest settlement plans. Harf kept saying the US policy is “serious concern” over the settlements, but refused to accept the characterization that they’re a slap in the face:

MS. HARF: Well, announcements that you’re referring to certainly come at a particularly sensitive time with the negotiations continuing in the region. We continue to engage with the Israeli Government to make our serious concerns known…

QUESTION: Have you asked them to put that on hold?

MS. HARF: I’m not going to get into specifics about what those diplomatic discussions entail other than to say we’ve made our concerns known.

QUESTION: So they’re not following suit with what European allies who strongly condemn this act as hindering the peace process?… a European Union statement, also states very clearly that the settlement are contrary to international laws and, in fact, an obstacle to peace. Do you concur with that?

MS. HARF: Well, I’m not going to comment on their statement, I’m going to make clear what our position is, which is that —

QUESTION: you basically had the Palestinians threatening on Sunday evening to just walk out even before the meetings start. Then we’re right back to where we were in 2010. Given that the Embassy has already made it clear in the past several days that the U.S. does not approve of these settlements, what has the Secretary himself done?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t have anything to read out for you about the Secretary’s activities. As you know, right now he’s in Colombia and Brazil tomorrow…

QUESTION: With all due respect, yes, the Secretary may be on travel in Latin America but there is a phone on his 757 —

MS. HARF: There is.

QUESTION: — and it would seem that given that the Prime Minister was indisposed over the weekend that something from the Secretary should have been conveyed to his government about the particular delicacy of the moment.

MS. HARF:…. I don’t have any specifics for you on calls the Secretary has made…

QUESTION: Since you talked about sensitive time and you’re both – asked both sides to refrain from taking any provocative action,  don’t you think that the Israeli action now is a slap in the face in your efforts to trying to bring the two parties together?

MS. HARF: Well, I’m not going to characterize it in those terms.

QUESTION: Well, why not?

MS. HARF: Because I’m not going to…

The JTA reports on Kerry’s meeting with Jewish leaders last Thursday night preparing them for the talks. Kerry lamented “pressures on Netanyahu,” including the EU’s restrictions about settlements:

[Kerry is] also nervous about the potential for failure, warning of circumstances — for instance, pressures on Netanyahu — that could undermine them…

Kerry said there was a “strategic imperative” to arrive at a deal soon, and said he understood the difficulties faced by Netanyahu in dealing with a coalition that included right-wing parties.

Kerry expressed frustration with the European Union’s new policy of not giving grants and prizes to Israeli enterprises in occupied areas, saying it was the sort of move that could nudge away Netanyahu.

The Times of Israel report on that meeting said that Kerry warned that Israel’s future is at stake:

An optimistic-sounding Kerry asked the Jewish leaders for their help in supporting the newly restarted talks, The Times of Israel learned, saying that he feared for Israel’s future if a peace deal is not reached.

Kerry told the fewer than two-dozen representatives of Jewish organizations that … there is a strategic imperative to act now. He noted that Israel faces the threat of diplomatic isolation and a demographic clock.


The Jewish leaders want Kerry to put pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, the PA President:

A number of the Jewish leaders pressed Kerry on Abbas’s upcoming address to the United Nations General Assembly. They expressed hope that Abbas would change the tone of his rhetoric during his speeches to the world body — a good-faith gesture to demonstrate outward Palestinian willingness to engage in peace talks. One observer noted that Kerry seemed receptive to the idea.

Other Jewish representatives pushed for Kerry to ask Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

MJ Rosenberg notes that Americans for Peace Now did not attend the Kerry meeting, evidently because of the settlements announcement, while J Street did. And Rosenberg says that Kerry is the problem:

Kerry is worried about Netanyahu feeling pressured, particularly by the EU’s decision not to fund projects in the occupied territories. Why? Given that the European Union does not recognize Israeli sovereignty in the occupied areas, why should it fund Israeli projects there?

Of course the EU’s decision enraged Netanyahu and the Israeli right in general because they believe that the West Bank is every bit as Israeli as Tel Aviv. How dare the EU make such distinctions?

In fact, the EU decision is a small step, primarily of symbolic importance. But it did energize anti-occupation forces inside Israel because it helps them make the case that the occupation is not just wrong, and not just illegal, it is costing Israel economically.

The United States should welcome this kind of pressure on Netanyahu, especially because it doesn’t come from the United States (and therefore cannot damage the Democratic Party in the eyes of donors). Unfortunately Kerry is so determined to achieve some sort of personal success with his peace initiative, he opposes any action that will upset Netanyahu. He can’t permit any move by anyone that will “nudge away Netanyahu.” Not by us. Not by anyone.

(h/t Hostage)

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