It was only ever a matter of time before Secretary of State John Kerry–desperate to hold together some semblance of a peace process–caved to Arab pressure and turned against Israel’s primary requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of an end to the conflict. Speaking to members of Congress on Thursday, Kerry made it clear that he thought that such a demand on Israel’s part was a “mistake.” Once again the administration is trying to set the bar for an agreement so incredibly low that even the intransigent Palestinians can be slipped over it, whether they wish to be or not.
Kerry’s reasoning on this point was as shoddy as ever. He explained that since international law already confirmed Israel’s status as a Jewish state, there was no need for the Palestinians to give their recognition to this fact. Yet this is an unbelievable proposition. If Israel’s status as a Jewish state is mandated by international law, which it most certainly is, then it is hardly any great ask to require that any emerging Palestinian state comply with international law and recognize this fact. A meaningful end to the conflict clearly requires that the Palestinians confirm a cessation of any further claims against Israel, by accepting that they will no longer attempt to extinguish the Jewish state either by trying to flood it with the descendants of Arab refugees or by continuously demanding further territory.
In these negotiations, Israel has made relatively few demands, simply insisting that an agreement must mean an end to the conflict and Palestinian claims, and that as such the Jewish state be recognized and that its security be assured. Yet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whose own demands multiply and mutate endlessly, has proven incapable of even agreeing to these basic requirements. Aware that this will mean the end of their shambolic peace process, Obama and Kerry are now putting pressure on Israel so that without the Palestinians having had to concede anything of any substance, an agreement will appear to have fallen into place nonetheless.
Yet, it will indeed only ever be the appearance of a peace agreement. In recent days southern Israel has been hit by a barrage of rockets from Gaza. Israel struck back, then a ceasefire was reached. The only problem is the rockets have kept falling on Israel anyway, as if the ceasefire had never existed. It is quite possible that the leaders of Islamic Jihad who agreed upon the ceasefire have upheld their part of it, but that would not necessarily prevent splinter groups from carrying on. This tells us a couple things about the agreements that Israel can make with its enemies. First, there is no guarantee that those who sign agreements one day will not just break them the next. Second, making agreements with Palestinian leaders is meaningless if those they claim to represent actually want no part in accepting Israel.
Speaking during a press conference with Abbas earlier on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Israeli and Palestinian leaders would need to take certain steps, even if they were unpopular with their wider publics. This really is a mistake. An end to the conflict cannot be imposed top-down by the leadership of either side. In the unlikely event that Abbas could be made to sign an agreement, nothing will have been achieved if large parts of the Palestinian population are in favor of continuing the war on Israel. Even if they are not given the means to elect leaders to fulfill this wish, as in Gaza, sooner or later they will be able to sweep away those that agreed to an unpopular peace and resume attacks on Israel, which will have made the territorial concessions that will make fending off such an assault all the more difficult, if not impossible.
Thursday saw one other event of major import; Israel’s Knesset passed a bill requiring that further territorial concessions on Israel’s part will have to be approved by the Israeli public in a referendum. Naturally, Tzipi Livni and the rest of the Israeli left voiced their opposition to such a law. Not only does the Israeli left hold much of the Israeli public in contempt as backward reactionaries, but it seems that some of them have such messianic impulses where a peace agreement is concerned that they want one implemented whether or not it can be justified strategically. And they certainly don’t want a security cautious Israeli public getting in the way of any of this.
More importantly, not only should the Israeli public have a referendum on any final agreement, but so must the Palestinians. It won’t really be peace unless the vast majority of people on both sides agree the conflict is over. Israel needs to know that it is the Palestinian people who really accept a Jewish state, not just a group of politicians in Ramallah whose own democratic mandate expired years ago. Nevertheless, it would at least be a start to have the likes of Abbas recognize the very same Jewish state that Obama claims the Palestinian president is currently negotiating with in “good faith.” For Kerry to now be faltering on Israel’s most basic requirement for peace renders him virtually redundant as someone who can oversee the process effectively.
Both the Palestinians and the EU have been making a lot of noise about what unilateral actions they will take if and when talks fail. Perhaps it is time that Israel started to air some talk of its own unilateral moves if talks are to fail. There are several leading figures in the governing coalition who would like to see Israeli sovereignty applied to the West Bank settlement blocs. A gentle reminder of this fact might start to get Israel taken a little more seriously in Washington once again.