David Harris

Dear Secretary Kerry

The outgoing statesman means well -- so why did he ignore Israeli fears, and leave out the matter of Jewish refugees

I listened with rapt attention to your speech Wednesday on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I did so as someone who has yearned for an end to this conflict for decades, who grasps that the essential Jewish mission has always been the all-too-elusive quest for peace, and whose organization, AJC, has advocated for a two-state solution for nearly 25 years.

And I did so as one who understands that settlement-building beyond the security barrier is indeed a major impediment to the prospects for a final-status accord.

Moreover, I believe in your good will.

I’ve seen it up close. I’ve heard it from you in private, not only in public. When you say you want to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, I know full well that you mean it.

When you express anguish over the dangers faced by Israeli children in Israeli border cities like Sderot and Kiryat Shmona, it comes not just from your head, but from the depths of your soul.

And I recognize the unprecedented level of bilateral cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem over the past eight years in the defense and intelligence spheres, at the UN and its specialized agencies, and elsewhere. You cited many examples, and each one rings so true.

How many Israeli lives have indeed been saved because of US-Israeli cooperation in missile defense systems? How many potentially tragic situations have been averted by bilateral intelligence sharing? And how many misguided international efforts related to Israel have been stopped in their tracks by American intervention?

And yet, as I processed every word, every idea, every facial gesture, every gesticulation in your remarks, I felt some unease. I wanted to embrace it all — the hope, the vision, the determination — and yet something was missing for me.

You yourself said that a majority of Israelis support the idea of separation and an agreement with the Palestinians. That’s true, of course. But in the very same polls, they also express fear that the ultimate goal of their neighbors is the elimination of Israel. In other words, Israelis are schizophrenic, which, given the region in which they live, is entirely understandable.

On the one hand, they may resonate to the idea of two states for two peoples, a “non-militarized” (and democratic?) Palestinian state, and an end to the conflict and all claims on both sides, but, in their kishkes, do they really believe it’s possible in today’s turbulent Middle East, or do they ascribe the vision to the overly romanticized notions of well-intentioned outsiders?

After all, these outsiders haven’t exactly gotten much right in the Middle East of late, many Israelis would argue — not Syria, not Iraq, not Libya, not Iran… the list is getting longer and longer. So why should they place their trust — and their destiny — in the “latest” plan?

The big fear, I have heard time and again, is that a Palestinian state is very likely to become a failed state, joining too many others in the region. If Israel miraculously signed an agreement with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah tomorrow, for instance, who would be in charge there in a year or five or 10?

Abbas has made absolutely no provision for succession, though he is in his eighties; a major fight is brewing in the West Bank for eventual control of the Palestinian Authority; and Hamas, already ruling Gaza, won’t sit idly by in the West Bank, either. And any instability there won’t just affect Israel, of course, but also, if not more so, Jordan.

Moreover, why have Israelis moved to the right on the political spectrum, weakening once robust left-of-center parties? Some have attributed it to immigration from the FSU and the high birthrate of Orthodox Jews, but the main reason, people on the street might say, is the accumulation of events from 2000 onward — a determined effort by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, joined by President Bill Clinton, to pursue a two-state deal, only to be rebuffed by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who triggered a second intifada in response; Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, only to see the space occupied by Hezbollah and its state-within-a-state army; Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, with Hamas quickly expelling the PA and seizing the reins of power there; and Abbas himself, often described as a man with whom to make peace, largely AWOL from the negotiating table, while stoking the fires of incitement, martyrdom, and delegitimization of Israel.

And that brings me to Friday’s UN Security Council resolution (2334). The real question ought to be whether or not it brings us closer to a resumption of peace talks. For now, it seems pretty clear that its consequence has been negative — emboldening Abbas in his strategy of internationalizing the conflict and trying to corner Israel, while prompting Netanyahu to declare that Israel can’t get a fair hearing from the global community.

So why the resolution on Friday, with a US abstention, and why the speech just 24 days before the Obama administration relinquishes power to a new US administration, whose views, as you noted, are quite different from those you voiced?

Could it be to set the stage for more action by the UN Security Council in the coming days, and empower the French-initiated conference in Paris in mid-January? Could it be to create facts on the ground that no future administration could easily ignore or sidestep?

As I said at the outset, I don’t doubt your commitment to Israel, but I can’t help but wonder what exactly is going on here.

Unless we can expect major pronouncements from you between now and January 20th about the unparalleled carnage in Syria, the unraveling of Libya, Iran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East and growing challenge to American forces, as well as Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine — all of which touch on fundamental American interests and may not be handled in the same way by President Trump and his team, then why this one issue, and with a close ally to boot, on Friday at the UN, today at the State Department, and tomorrow possibly back at the UN — with our without US initiation — or in Paris?

Before closing, let me cite just one more theme — in the interests of historical accuracy and justice.

One of your six principles was resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. I waited for you to add in that section some reference to the Jewish refugee question, but, alas, there was none.

Mr. Secretary, as you know, there were two, not one, refugee populations created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they were of roughly equal size. Just because one has been kept alive by UNRWA and the absence of any mandate to resettle refugees (and, I’d add, their descendants in perpetuity), while the other has been dealt with by people who refused to be instrumentalized and chose to move on with their lives, the tragedy — and the claims — of both populations require attention.

Finally, like you and the late Shimon Peres, I refuse to give up on the future. I’ve seen enough political miracles in my lifetime to convince me that historic change is possible — for starters, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa; Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan; French-German reconciliation; the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain; democracy restored in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile; and the rescue of millions of Jews from the USSR.

But coming from a family that experienced directly the scourges of Communism, Nazism, and jihadism, I know that we must have the capacity not only to imagine the best, but also to fear the worst.

Many Israelis and their supporters have similar family backgrounds. When developments warrant, the Israelis act. They have in the past. They will again. Enduring peace is, and always has been, their highest priority.

For that to happen, however, they need to believe there are committed leaders on the other side of the bargaining table prepared to negotiate in good faith. Alas, sadly, it remains to be seen if that will prove the case anytime soon.

About the Author
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
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