In a May 3 address to the Anti-Defamation League’s National Leadership Conference, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry reiterated his steadfast support for Israel and assured attendees that, if elected, he would never force Israel to negotiate without a “credible partner.”

Statements supportive of Israel by U.S. leaders are not unusual; particularly during an election year when the candidate is seeking support from a group of prominent American Jews. But Kerry’s remarks are telling about the nature of the upcoming election and bode ill for the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Following Bush’s Lead

George W. Bush’s administration has moved U.S. policy from a “special relationship” with Israel to a whole-hearted embrace of Israel’s positions in the conflict. Rather than putting forward an alternative approach—as one might hope from an opposition candidate—Kerry has followed Bush step by step.

Kerry endorsed the Bush administration’s “road map;” he supports Sharon’s “disengagement” plan; and he supported the April 14 letter of assurances Bush provided to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Like Bush, Kerry has accepted Israel’s “security first” paradigm, arguing that the political process cannot move forward until Israel’s security situation is stabilized, with no regard for Palestinian security. He supports Bush’s isolation of the Palestinians’ elected leader Yassir Arafat and agrees that Israel has no suitable “partner for peace.” Kerry’s statements defending Israel’s construction of the West Bank separation barrier as a necessary “security” measure are more vociferous than any Bush has made.

The only distinguishing characteristic is that Kerry is pushing for greater U.S. diplomatic involvement. He has repeatedly criticized Bush for failing to engage consistently in the process. As president, Kerry argues, he would resume the level of direct engagement of the Clinton years, ignoring the fact that the Clinton administration’s “shuttle diplomacy” failed.

Why We Fail As An Honest Broker

The United States’ inability to broker a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement lies in its approach to the conflict, not the frequency of its diplomacy. U.S. credibility in the region, already low, suffered a fatal blow during the process. The United States repeatedly failed to act even-handedly, choosing to support Israel and leaving Palestinians with no means of recourse as Israel confiscated more of its land, expanded settlements, restricted mobility and further divided its territory into isolated cantons. The popular protests that erupted in September 2000 were not a Palestinian negotiating strategy, but a response to seven years of a “peace” process that had further entrenched Israel’s occupation and worsened Palestinian living conditions.

Rather than serving as a template for a successful foreign policy, the Clinton administration—and the Oslo process it led—gave birth to the dismal situation of today. But surrounded by Clinton-era officials, including former ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrook and National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, Kerry seems to believe that he can jump back in where Clinton left off, in willful ignorance of both the flaws of the Oslo process and the fact that the playing field has changed radically.

Clinton’s initiative began at a time when most Israelis and Palestinians possessed some level of hope that an end to the conflict was possible—and near. The experience of the Oslo years fractured that belief. More than three years into the second Palestinian uprising against occupation, there is near-constant Israeli military attacks on Palestinian communities, harsh measures of collective punishment and an unprecedented series of violent Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. Hope is absent.

No Palestinians At The Table

The U.S.-Israel alliance remains strong, but it is now between the rightist governments of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. It is set against the backdrop of the wildly unpopular U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, and the Palestinian leadership is no longer even included in the process. As the April 14 Bush-Sharon meeting indicated, it is Israel and the United States who are engaged in negotiations, with the United States determining what Palestinians can and cannot expect from a final settlement.

Bush’s May 6 letter to Jordan’s King Abdullah is insignificant; not a dramatic about-face. Rather, it represents a classic case of diplomatic doublespeak, which comes as little surprise, given Arab outrage over Bush’s public endorsement of Israel’s positions and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal unfolding. Bush simply stressed to Abdullah that final status issues must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties, based on UN resolutions 242 and 338. These same elements existed in his letter to Sharon. While Bush also stated that the United States would not prejudice the outcome of final status talks, he already did so in April by arguing that “it is unrealistic” for Palestinians to expect a complete return to pre-1967 borders, a dismantlement of all Israeli settlements and the fulfillment of the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return.” Furthermore, the reported upcoming meeting between National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia—which will no doubt involve the United States pressuring the Palestinians to see the “positives” of “disengagement”—falls far short of actually engaging the Palestinian leadership or rectifying the damage that has already been done to their negotiating position.

But John Kerry does not object to any of this; he supports it. Kerry’s most concrete suggestion to date has been that, if elected, he would appoint a high-level envoy to follow up the process. The ensuing hullabaloo over who that envoy would be—an eminent personality such as Bill Clinton or a lower-level negotiator like Richard Holbrooke—misses the point. John Kerry could appoint Desmond Tutu as the U.S. envoy, but unless his mandate differed from that allowed by current U.S. foreign policy, Tutu would fail. Until this policy substantively changes, any administration—be it Democrat or Republican—is going to meet the same fate as have Clinton and Bush.

Lacking Alternatives

At minimum, a viable alternative that Kerry and the Democrats could offer would be one that includes the Palestinian leadership in the process; addresses the root causes of the conflict, including Israel’s occupation and the situation of Palestinian refugees; recognizes security as but one element of a larger process that must be dealt with holistically; and is spearheaded by a U.S. administration prepared to deal evenhandedly with the parties and minimize the asymmetrical power balance between the two.

But Kerry offers no alternative. If elected president, he will steer the United States down the same disastrous path as his predecessor. Surveys of public opinion in the Middle East repeatedly cite U.S. foreign policy—in particular policies on Israel-Palestine—as the main factor for anti-U.S. sentiment in the region. The Bush administration’s course of action has caused those feelings to skyrocket. Kerry is ensuring that not only will this continue, but, in all likelihood, so too will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In neglecting to provide an alternative to Bush’s approach, John Kerry’s policy vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine has already failed. But more than that, Kerry and the Democratic Party have failed those Americans who long for an alternative to the Bush administration’s devastating policies.

How to cite this article:

Catherine Cook "Kerry on Israel: Me Too," Middle East Report Online, May 10, 2004.

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