Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adivser to the Conservative Party, and is CEO of Brexit Analytica.
When John Kerry yesterday announced a new American Middle East peace initiative, you could tell he was angry with Israel’s government and settlement movement – but his forceful tone couldn’t make up for the absence of forceful policy.
There are of course good reasons to wonder whether serious pressure on Israel would be the best use of American diplomatic capital: it is to the settlers’ good fortune that the region has numerous other crises competing for international attention. And, if the two state solution proves impossible, this failure is one for which Palestinians as well as Israelis deserve considerable blame. But Kerry’s fury was understandable, because Israel’s settlement movement – opponents of the two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict – had outwitted him yet again.
Often presented as composed of of religious fanatics with no sense of reality, no characterisation of Israel’s settlement movement could be further from the truth. Since the late 1970s, when the new first outpost beyond the country’s 1967 borders was built, it has taken on the world, and each year it has won a little bit more.
However much it may use religious fervour, its leadership is intensely practical and focused, quite literally, on building “facts on the ground” that will be difficult for its opponents to undo. It works from the belief that conflict with the Palestinians is inevitable and justified. Inevitable, because the Palestinians cannot be expected voluntarily to accept Jewish sovereignty over areas they consider rightfully belonging to them (that would involve them giving up their dignity, so they have to be coerced), and justified because both sides were happy to join the battle – so the Palestinians shouldn’t complain if the fighting goes against them. The settlers are not fair-minded men and women looking for a solution to the conflict, but partisans who want to prosecute it to final victory. Failure to understand this was Kerry’s first mistake.
Peace requires the settlers’ defeat, but it can’t be achieved directly by international pressure (extreme nationalists always thrive if they can persuade their countryfolk that wagons must be circled). It needs an an Israeli government hostile to them to take office.
Israeli society has been divided 50-50 on this issue since the 1990s, but the pro-settlement right has come out on top. This not just because Benjamin Netanyahu is a superior politician to his rivals, but also because they haven’t developed an alternative to a “land for peace” policy that is seen to have failed. Netanyahu’s opponents need to be able to answer his charges that when Israel gave Palestinians political autonomy, they used it to launch a suicide bombing campaign; and that, when Israel withdrew from territory without an agreement, its enemies bombarded Israel from it: assaults that could only be stopped by bloody wars in Gaza and Lebanon and which did more damage to Israel’s international standing than the occupation or settlements have.
While settlements indeed threaten Israel’s security rather than enhance it, the case needs to be made for their removal in a manner that doesn’t expose Israelis to Palestinian violence. The Israeli policy that could achieve this is not difficult to imagine: remove the settlements from the West Bank beyond the security barrier but not the military occupation, to create the conditions for an agreement with the Palestinians later. Though many on the Israeli Left would consider this distasteful (it risks prolonging the occupation, just without settlements) most of its members can probably be persuaded to accept it as a step towards peace.
Kerry’s six principles do nothing to advance this political change. The conflict isn’t about finding the parameters for a solution – those have been clear for at least 20 years, but about domestic Israeli and Palestinian politics. So unless these change, the prospects for peace won’t advance. Failing to see why this is so is Kerry’s second mistake.
The reality is that the United States has neither the domestic political environment nor an administration with the necessary will to take on the Israeli settlement movement it loudly (and correctly) claims is an obstacle to peace. Kerry’s combination of anger and inaction epitomises the Obama Administration’s essential weakness in foreign affairs. The outgoing president may think “the arc of history bends towards justice” – but if you’re President of the United States you’re supposed to give history a good shove.