(This article assumes that the US vetoed Resolution 2334)
Today I want to share candid thoughts about an issue which has animated foreign policy for decades- the Israeli-Palestinian issue. As you know, we recognise that separation and two states for two peoples are in the long term interests of both Israelis and Palestinians and we have worked towards achieving that goal. But we need to have an honest, clear eyed conversation about the factors that impede this goal and what I am going to say will shock some seasoned observers of the conflict. For US friendship means telling hard truths to our allies.
Our Palestinian friends say that they want to end the indignity of living as stateless people under occupation. I understand the grievances of ordinary civilians facing a multitude of checkpoints and roadblocks, even though there is naturally a military rationale for their existence. There are some aspects of the occupation that make life much harder for ordinary people in the West Bank and these grievances are compounded by certain settlement policies with which we disagree.
We want to see a peaceful, democratic, demilitarised Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. A one state solution is not feasible politically, demographically or economically. It cannot in the long run solve Israel’s security needs or give the Palestinians the independence they say they crave.
But I have to tell the Palestinians that while we have been committed to creating a state for them, they have failed to show the leadership necessary for statesmanlike compromise. The Palestinian Authority remains in a state of belligerency with Israel, intent on keeping this conflict alive and thus ensuring that its people are trapped in despondency and victimhood. They are stealing their people’s future right in front of them.
Shortly before President Obama came to power early in 2009, Ehud Olmert made the most generous offer of statehood by any modern Israeli prime minister. It included a contiguous West Bank Palestinian state covering some 95% of the territory and a land link to Gaza. There was a deal on the table covering settlements and also a generous package of compensation. Maps were produced showing all these territorial changes. A deal was on the table dividing up the Old City into areas of Israeli and Palestinian control. It was not a perfect solution, but then which political compromises ever are?
Mahmoud Abbas, who tells us today that his people lack a state, had the chance to give them one. He chose not to respond to the offer, walking away when he could have said yes. He was also part of the delegation at Camp David and Taba in 2000-1 when the Israelis offered to create a state by withdrawing from almost the entire West Bank, offering a similar deal on settlements and Jerusalem and compensation for refugees.
But sadly the Palestinian negotiators responded by saying no without a counter offer in sight. They then launched the ferocious Second intifada, a wave of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers and which saw thousands die on their own side. Israel was traumatised by terror. It was another tragic missed opportunity to end the conflict and create 2 states living side by side in peace.
All this was before Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 2009. No doubt, he leads one of the most right wing governments in Israel’s history but we understand that years of terrorism have made Israelis that much more security conscious and wary of territorial compromise. Sure, Bibi has made pronouncements on settlement policy that we disagree
with. Expanding settlements in areas that may become a future Palestinian state is wrong and unproductive and will make the process of disengagement that much harder in the long run. In particular, we have concerns about a bill to retrospectively legalise settlements outposts that even the Israeli Supreme Court have deemed illegal because they are on private Palestinian land. We don’t like the fact that Arab permits in area C are routinely denied, thus necessitating the building of illegal structures.
But I’m afraid that our Palestinian friends, and too many world leaders, have fallen for the seductive idea that the settlements primarily stand in the way of a peace agreement. For starters, we recognise that the vast majority of settlers are going to live in areas annexed to Israel. That is the whole rationale behind land swaps, which both sides have accepted and which is one of the explicit premises of any peaceful settlement.
That is one of the reasons why we vetoed the biased Security Council resolution 2334. It conflated all settlements, and wrongly characterised them as illegal, which they are not. The resolution also branded the Jewish areas of the Old City, including the Wailing Wall and the Mount of Olives, as illegally occupied which is as profoundly historically illiterate as branding Mecca as unIslamic. The Jews have a deep 3,000 year attachment to the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem, a fact which is too often denied by their enemies.
We recognise that a settlement freeze in parts of the West Bank would be helpful at this stage. We also recognise that Israel carried out such a freeze for nearly a year, at our urging, only to find that Mahmoud Abbas would not even sit down to talk to his Israeli interlocutors. At the same time, the removal of settlers from Gaza had no material impact on peace between Israel and that enclave. Instead of turning the area into a thriving ‘Singapore of the Middle East’ the area’s new rulers, the genocidal, terrorists of Hamas, used it as a launching pad for missile attacks against the citizens of southern Israel. While we understand the need for Palestinian unity in the long term, the unity deal between the PA and Hamas is totally deplorable and cannot serve the interests of peace.
The Palestinians have given us repeated assurances that they will act to eradicate incitement within their society. These assurances have sadly fallen on deaf ears. Every day we receive reports of how Palestinian terrorists are being lionised on television and newspapers. People whose only claim to fame is that they killed Jews are treated as national heroes, heroes whose ‘feats’ are to be emulated by impressionable children.
It is obscene that terrorists, once released, receive salaries commensurate with the gravity of their crime. It is equally obscene that western funded UNRWA schools demonise Jews and Israelis in textbooks and promote the idea that Israel will soon disappear. The Palestinian leadership is raising a generation for war, not co-existence. I am not saying that Israel is free of incitement. We are appalled at some comments made by politicians and religious figures on the Israeli right too. But Israel has laws against incitement; there is no official mandate for incitement.
Israel needs to take brave steps to peace, if only because a one state solution is unworkable. This should be mirrored by continuing to improve life and opportunities for Israeli Arabs who sometimes face discrimination and inequality. But while she will offer something tangible (land), the Palestinians can only offer something less, namely a promise that there can be no future belligerency. We understand the very real threat that can be posed by a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, especially given what happened after the Gaza pullout in 2005. The rise in Iranian funded terror in the region fuels Jerusalem’s fear that a future Palestinian state will become an enclave of fundamentalism
and fanaticism which will threaten Israelis for years to come. The very least we expect from the PA is that they recognise Israel as a Jewish state and declare that the conflict is over, once a deal has been signed. We also insist, together with the rest of the international community, that the right of return is to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. The Jewish state would cease to be one if it was overrun by millions of Arab refugees.
However, these simple demands have eluded the PA. In the meantime, incitement remains stubbornly strong from Ramallah. It is a simple fact that you cannot ever build a Palestinian state by demonising and delegitimising the Jewish one. It would be a recipe for endless war.
Like I say, we want to end the indignity of Palestinian statelessness and look beyond the status quo of despair and despondency. Tough choices are needed and we will provide whatever help we can to overcome the status quo. No one would expect the USA to do more than this.