Speaking Out of Turn

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has always been one of those who believed the key to a better future for the Middle East lies with striking peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Recent developments in the region have seen the number of these believers shrink considerably, but some still remain obsessed with the issue.

Could Kerry be one of them? That is the most plausible explanation for the long-winded speech he gave last week, criticizing the settlement enterprise. Still, one must question the speech. Kerry is obviously familiar with what is currently transpiring in the Middle East: He knows no Arab state is absolutely stable, even if upheaval has yet to befall it; he knows that there is no way to strike peace between the Sunnis and Shiites; he knows that radical Islamist groups are thriving in the region, threatening the fabric of life in the moderate Sunni states from within; and he knows that in the Middle East, the soil is drenched with blood.

Kerry is also supposed to know that Iran is gaining a greater foothold in the region, both over the 2015 nuclear deal, and over its alliance with Russia, which has become the only power in the region. Yes, excluding the air campaign against the Islamic State, the U.S. has become less relevant when it comes to the wars waged in the Middle East, at least for now.

Yet the secretary of state, in his last speech on Middle East policymaking, chose to focus on one thing — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a clear sign of his inability to properly gauge the Palestinian issue’s place in the regional equation. And it’s too big of a distortion to be taken as random error.

Kerry’s offense does not lie with what he said, but rather with what he did not say, and what those unsaid words implied. The obsessive preoccupation with settlements could be justified had it been described in the right context, or had he explained how the Palestinians’ conduct also contributes to the crippled negotiations and the loss of confidence in the peace process as a whole.

Kerry failed to mention how the Palestinian Authority’s support of terrorists’ families leads to bloodshed. He did not demand Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cease this practice, even though Israelis see it as one of the most damaging things to the negotiations’ credibility.

He failed to condemn Palestinian incitement as strongly as he denounced Israeli settlement construction, and was not as adamant in his demand to cease the former as he was about placing a moratorium on the latter, even though Abbas could easily put a stop to Palestinian incitement, which will reduce the number of terrorist attacks.

To hear Kerry describe things, the Palestinians and the world could understand that, as far as the United States is concerned, there is one problem and one problem only — the settlement enterprise.

Moreover, the secretary of state made it sound as if the failed efforts to reignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hinged on nothing but the settlement enterprise. He failed to mention that in 2010, Israel placed a 10-month moratorium on all settlement construction because Washington promised Abbas would resume negotiations — he did not. He failed to mention that he personally negotiated a deal, by which Israel would release vile murderers and Abbas would resume negotiations — he did not.

Kerry further failed to mention the big secret of why Abbas, after meeting with President Barack Obama in 2014, refused the proposed American framework to reignite the peace talks, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to it. That was a critical test of “yes” or “no,” one Netanyahu passed and Abbas failed.

For these reasons, even if everything Kerry said in his speech was true, it was still only a very partial representation of reality, and as we all know, half-truths are far worse than a whole lie. This is why Britain and Australia, two nations that believe Israel should not build settlements in Judea and Samaria, came out against the speech, stating clearly that the settlements “are far from the only problem” hindering the peace process. London and Canberra seem to understand something that Kerry does not: When one loses proportion and presents half-truths, one inflicts harm — even if the facts are correct.

A boon for anti-Semitism
The more profound issue stemming from Kerry’s speech, and from the U.S.’s decision not to veto the U.N. Security Council’s Dec. 23 resolution condemning the settlement enterprise, stretches beyond their immediate significance: The Security Council’s resolution is not legally binding, and the outgoing secretary of state’s speech bears no diplomatic significance, but both bear moral significance.

Israel is waging a battle against a well-organized, well-funded delegitimization campaign, and these incidents will make it that much more difficult, as they would make it easier for Israel’s detractors to claim its actions are to blame for the stalled negotiations. It will also make it easier for Israel’s detractors to impose sanctions on settlement products as a first step — and the State of Israel as the next step.

Kerry’s words will serve those who hate Israel, and they may indirectly boost anti-Semitism worldwide, because for many, little separates Israel and the settlement enterprise and even less separates a struggle against Israel’s policies and the hatred of Jews. At times one — the struggle against Israel’s policies — seeks no more than to disguise the other.

At the end of the day, the Security Council’s resolution and Kerry’s speech were a disservice for the president and his secretary of state. Assuming their goal was to prompt Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks some day, their actions have only pushed that day farther away, as neither party is inclined to do so now.

Recent events have created a need in Israel to formulate “a proper response” to the outgoing administration’s moves, to prove Israel is a sovereign state that yields to no one. This may spell an acceleration of settlement construction, or the annexation of parts of Area C, which could only agitate the situation on the ground and fuel the Palestinians’ sense that there is no partner in negotiations.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, will see the resolution and Kerry’s speech as a reason not to resume negotiations at all, as that would spell concessions on their part. After all, reality has proven that their international standing can improve regardless of negotiations or any concessions. None of Kerry’s predecessors, for example, actually spoke of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.

Recent events have proven that anger and obsession are a poor foundation for making important decisions, as evident from Kerry’s speech and U.S. abstention at the Security Council’s vote. Israel should refrain from making the same mistake.

Originally appeared in Israel Hayom January 10, 2017.