And, having written my fair share of speeches for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on this issue, I would argue that there are four key questions that need to be asked to better understand how we got here — and where we might be going.
Clearly, a decision was made to make this a Kerry rather than a Barack Obama speech. Previous presidents have attached their names to peace plans and initiatives (see the 1982 Reagan Initiative and the 2000 Clinton parameters, the latter of which is still a vital part of the negotiating record).
But having just authorized an abstention on a controversial resolution at the United Nations, I have to figure the President was quite content to allow the Secretary of State to take the next hit. And given Kerry’s “Energizer Bunny” drive to try and resolve the conflict, it was both natural and appropriate. Indeed, the speech was a passionate, personal and at times angry statement from a man who believes deeply that the two-state solution is dying and that US, Israeli and Palestinian interests will suffer if it’s not somehow rescued.
Was there anything new?
The context of the speech — days after the US abstention at the Security Council over a resolution criticizing Israeli settlements — really did drive much of its content. Kerry spent a fair amount of time defending the US action at the United Nations, rejecting charges that the United States had colluded with others, while laying out the case for why the US has been staunchly supportive of Israel.
But the central portion of the speech was a harsh attack on the settlement enterprise and why they undermine the prospects for a two-state solution. And even though Kerry conceded, rightly, that they are not the only or even main obstacle to a two-state solution, and while he did identify numerous forms of bad Palestinian behavior, the level of detail on the settlement question left the clear impression that addressing the settlement enterprise was a priority. Unlike his description of Palestinian transgressions, he used the settlements issue to directly question the intentions and commitment of the Israeli government, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As far as the issues themselves go, the Kerry speech largely refrained from the detailed parameters that President Bill Clinton set down, instead wisely identifying broad principles. On one issue, however, the speech may have broken new ground — on the issue of Jerusalem.
This may well be the first time that the United States, at least in such a highly visible public forum rather than in the negotiating room, talked about Jerusalem as the capital of two states. This has been an assumption of most serious negotiating efforts since the 2000 Camp David summit, but rarely has it been mentioned publicly. That suggests that if in fact the Trump administration does carry out a campaign pledge to move the US Embassy there, the contents of this speech may well acquire legs.
Anyone paying attention over the past year or so could have picked up signals that the Obama administration, frustrated with the impasse in the peace process, was looking for some late game maneuver to put its stamp on this issue. What isn’t clear is motivation — was it to try to tie its successors’ hands with a U.N. Security Council resolution or to take a proverbial shot at an Israeli government that didn’t get the memo on how harmful settlements are to the process. Or was it simply meant to sum up where the Obama administration stands on Middle East? Or all of the above?
Does it matter?
The fact is the Obama administration will join a long line of administrations that have failed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, a process which is still not ready for prime time in large part because the leadership and ownership required to the make the necessary decisions is lacking on both sides.
The problem with this last-minute initiative is that the new administration is likely to walk away from the U.N. Security Council position and the speech. This means that the end result, rather than constraining Israeli settlement activity, may be to produce the opposite effect. By acting now, the Obama administration may have emboldened the Israeli right, an international community determined to use the Security Council resolution to hammer the Israelis and a Trump administration eager to defend Israel and provide it greater latitude for carrying out unilateral acts on the ground.
Suffice to say, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that a perfect storm may be brewing in the weeks and months ahead. And it doesn’t take a brilliant analyst to conclude that the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is likely to get worse — before it gets even worse.
Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President-elect — and good luck. You’re going to need it.