America's next chief diplomat will have a whole deck of world problems to deal with, but Senator Kerry in that role should use his influence early to persuade his boss to resume efforts towards a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
Having been out bluffed on Jewish settlements in the West Bank by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu early in the first term, Obama will be tempted to put Palestine on hold during his second. He shouldn’t.
President Obama might say to his new secretary: John, the Palestinians had no role in the Arab Spring, and the entire region is in trouble. Syria is on the boil, Egypt’s future is in doubt, Iraq is unstable. The whole house of cards could collapse. You are one of the few people I have who can talk to President Karzai, and Afghanistan’s going to be our king-sized problem in the next four years. And the stakes could be even higher in Iran. The Palestinians are hopelessly divided. Netanyahu has the aces, and will never go for a two-state solution. The West Bank is quiet. Why can’t we just leave those Palestinian deuces face down?
Kerry could answer: Yes, there might be more immediate and pressing problems, but the Palestinians, like a fire in a coal mine, burn slowly on and on and are a constant source of grievance and instability throughout the Muslim world. Besides, it is grotesque in the 21st century that one people should dominate another in the manner that Israel dominates the Palestinians. It might not be colonialism or apartheid, but it is wrong and many Israelis, maybe most, know it. Mr. President, you keep saying you have Israel’s back, but the best thing you could do for our closest ally in the Middle East would be to help Israel find its way out of Palestine.
In political terms, few countries have as much influence on each other’s domestic politics than Israel and the US. Four years ago, Mr. President, you were eyeball to eyeball with Netanyahu over settlements. You blinked first and folded. He humiliated you by going before both houses of Congress to undermine you, and there were no consequences. An ally shouldn’t be allowed do that to the American president without consequences. Then Netanyahu did his best to get Romney elected in your place.
And no sooner did you have the United States vote against the purely symbolic UN vote for Palestinian statehood, on the theory that you had Israel’s back, than Netanyahu stuck his knife into yours by ordering massive new settlements. This cannot go on, Mr. President. In the end the Israeli public will not let any prime minster stray too far from the United States, Israel’s only important ally. You should make it clear that there will be consequences.
Now, Mr. President, Israel is about to have an election. Netanyahu will be returned to office and it would be counter-productive to try to influence Israeli voters otherwise. But once the election is over, Mr. President, you should go to Jerusalem, lay out your vision before Knesset. You probably should have gone to Jerusalem early in your first term, but it would be a great mistake not to go early in your second.
If we could really put the Palestinian problem on hold, meaning to do nothing and have nothing happen, that would be one thing. But Netanyahu is loading the deck. Every new settlement leaves less room for a two-state solution. You should concentrate on halting settlements before they overwhelm all the world’s hopes for Palestine. You have plenty of cards to play, Mr. President, and now, free from the need to get elected again, you should play them.
Your enemies like to paint you, Mr. President, as not a friend to Israel, but talk to anybody in Israel’s military and security apparatus, and you will hear that seldom has this relationship been closer. You really do have Israel’s back, and in the long run Israel is not Netanyahu. Your administration simply cannot afford to hold off the Palestinians, and it would be disastrous to fold.