An Open Letter To John Kerry
Dear Senator Kerry,
In discussing Israel’s election results during your confirmation hearings, you told the Senate:
I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to bring [Israelis and Palestinians] to the negotiating table and go down a different path than the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.
Prayers are a good thing. I have nothing against prayers. But—and I say this with deep respect for and real gratitude to you for your service to this country—praying is my job.
I’m a typer of words and woman of faith—you, on the other hand, are about to become the world’s most powerful diplomat. The part of your statement that matters is that last sentence: “I would like to try and do that.”
I’m already on record as believing that, under the current circumstances, the next Israeli government will be no more inclined toward peace than the current one—but that doesn’t mean that you and the White House can’t change the circumstances.
You’re hearing that Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid is a centrist, and J.J. Goldberg has made an excellent case against pessimism like mine regarding Yesh Atid’s potential—but whatever Lapid may say about insisting on a return to the negotiating table, he’s made very clear that he doesn’t personally understand what he’s up against.
Lapid’s insistence that Israel need only stand firm and the Palestinian people will give up on East Jerusalem is deeply troubling. As you and President Obama (and Prime Minister Netanyahu) know, there are simply no Palestinians, anywhere, who will ever agree to ceding all of Jerusalem to Israel. With that as his starting point, Netanyahu would be more than happy to agree to Lapid’s “negotiations.”
His approach to the settlements is of at least equal concern: While it’s clear that there would be land-swaps in any two-state agreement, most settlers would have to leave the West Bank—but Lapid insists that building won’t stop in major settlement blocs. Yet again, as both you and President Obama know, any construction serves to humiliate and tie the hands of Palestinian negotiators (in addition to being in direct contradiction to the Road Map for Peace that Israel signed with the U.S. in 2003). Moreover, the limitation of “major settlement blocs” is squishy at best. Even Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement “freeze” was more chimera than concession, in that construction never actually stopped, and was redoubled the instant the putative freeze ended.
Simply put: Every single home and road added to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is another nail in the coffin of a two-state peace. Whatever and whoever Yair Lapid might be, Benjamin Netanyahu is almost certainly going to be the next Prime Minister, and moreover, Yesh Atid is not the only party with which he’s discussing a coalition. Netanyahu has made it very clear that he wants to transform the so-called E-1 section of the West Bank into a major settlement bloc (again: in direct contradiction to promises made to successive American governments), and if the E-1 plan moves forward, it will in fact cut the West Bank in two. There’s no way to both establish a Palestinian state, and continue to coddle Israel’s settlers and their government backers.
I don’t think I’m telling you anything new. Not only do you know what a two-state peace requires, unlike most of Congress, you’ve actually been to Gaza. You’ve seen what the lives of Palestinians look like up close.
And I suspect that you also know that if you and President Obama can’t facilitate some kind of serious return to the negotiating table, the dream of a two-state peace will die on your watch.
I may have little faith in Yair Lapid and none in Benjamin Netanyahu as peacemakers—but I have enormous faith in the ability of the United States to lead, to change the international atmosphere in which Israel’s politicians function, and to encourage boldness.
Once in your new office, you can clarify to the next Israeli government that the U.S. will be standing by its own policies more firmly in the future. American vetoes at the U.N. need not be a foregone conclusion, the tax-exempt status of settlement-supportive American charities might be examined, and as Lara Friedman wrote in these pages, a simple change in official tone would go a long way. On the other hand, in exchange for concrete Israeli steps (rather than the winks and nudges of the past), the U.S. might offer the kind of financial support that would help relieve many of the social worries facing the vast majority of Israelis who live legally within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
It might not work, and not least because you’ll still have Hamas to deal with. No risky undertaking is ever guaranteed. But as an Israeli, as an American, and as a pro-Palestinian activist, I think it’s immeasurably important that the United States make the effort.
The continuing failure to achieve a durable peace not only provides extremists with anti-American recruiting tools, it serves to grind down the courage of Israelis and Palestinians—and they will need courage to leave the conflict behind.
So please, Senator. I’m grateful for your prayers, but I would be much more grateful for action. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us in Selma: Sometimes we have to pray with our feet.