Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Kerry Changes The Israel Game At AJC

While perhaps not as eye-catching a story as unclad female IDF soldiers (a blog post for another time), Secretary of State John Kerry's speech to the AJC yesterday was an important signal from the new Secretary about his seriousness towards pursuing a two-state solution.

Secretary Kerry's remarks signalled a sharp turn to the left from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.  Former Secretary Clinton has had historical success by towing the centrist Democratic party line, and her rhetoric on Israel reflected as much.  In addition, Clinton was constrained by the Obama administration's initial missteps on settlements in its early days.  

Three things have changed since 2008.  Firstly, President Obama has a renewed mandate given his re-election.  This mandate - along with term limits - gives him more flexibility with regards to Middle East policy since he is less beholden to centrist independents.  Secondly, Prime Minister Netanyahu has warmed towards the United States, a change driven by concern from the Israeli public over US alienation and a new round of elections which resulted in a centrist government.  President Obama's visit to Israel in March 2013 signaled a clear warming in relations between himself and the Prime Minister.  Thirdly, the severity of America's soft-power deficit is much lower now than in 2008, thanks largely to the work of former Secretary Clinton.  Given the abysmal state of US soft power following the Bush administration, Secretary Clinton's priorities were on rebuilding American soft power and navigating those challenges in the midst of the Arab Spring.  Due largely to her success, Secretary Kerry can now focus on other issues, including the Middle East peace process.

These changes explain largely why yesterday's speech was anything but boilerplate.  In a speech which much more closely reflected J Street than AIPAC talking points, Secretary Kerry challenged many of the safe Washington talking points about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In addition to raising Palestinian concerns about a lack of self-determination, suffering of innocent victims, and economic blight, the Secretary mentioned four noteworthy items.

1) "Empowerment of Moderates in the West Bank and Gaza." What Secretary Kerry did not say here was "Palestinian" moderates in the West Bank and Gaza.  Given events like the price tag attack by radical settlers in the village of Zubeidat just last week, there may be reason to think that Secretary Kerry's vagueness was intentional.

2) The Arab Spring is the time to "recast Israel's relationships."  The current boilerplate rhetoric is the opposite and emphasizes that the Arab Spring has made the region more dangerous and Israel passively wait out the turmoil.

3) The Gaza withdrawal failed because it was "unilateral." This point was the most striking departure from boilerplate rhetoric.  Secretary Kerry went so far as to present the boilerplate idea that the Gaza withdrawal was a peace move, and then directly challenged it in his speech.  

4) Israel and the US would be stronger if Israel had more international support.  This statement was more a departure from Israeli than American rhetoric, but the case for building Israeli soft power is highly understated in Washington.

Critically, Secretary Kerry challenged the attendees to identify an alternative to the two state solution.  In a line met with applause, he noted that, "a realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side."  While he delivered the boilerplate line that "the status quo is unsustainable," the Secretary followed up with a realistic and viable alternative.  In a peace process where rhetoric is all but worthless, hinting at a realistic preferred outcome is an important statement of resolve by the Secretary of State.

The actual likelihood of progress towards a two-state solution remains slim.  Unfortunately, the best intentions of an American Secretary of State are not on their own enough to create the mutual trust necessary for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  However, Secretary Kerry's remarks signal a State Department with the right starting posture to begin this process.  Furthermore, that Secretary Kerry made such remarks serves to legitimize many of the points in his speech which are traditionally a matter of debate.  In a speech about empowering moderates, Secretary Kerry did just that by providing a strong basis for reasonable and pragmatic steps to advance peace in the Middle East.