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The Kerry Initiative

(July 29, 2013 - April 23, 2014)
By Mitchell Bard

Sounding like the Arabists in the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in a speech to the American Jewish Committee on June 3, 2013, that “central to Israel’s founding is the belief that this State and the Jewish people must be able to control their own destiny,” but then proceeded to make a case why the United States knows what is best for Israel and asked American Jews to help pressure Israel’s leaders to accept the Obama administration’s views.

“No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community,” he said. “You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. And as President Obama said in Jerusalem, leaders will take bold steps only if their people push them to. You can help shape the future of this process. And in the end, you can help Israel direct its destiny and be masters of its own fate, just as Prime Minister Meir dreamed that it would be.”

He also expressed the belief that it was Israel’s fault that terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza bombarded Israel with rockets, even after its troops withdrew from both places, because Israel had withdrawn unilaterally without a peace treaty. He ignored the fact that neither the Palestinians nor the Lebanese had any interest in making peace with Israel.

Despite evidence to the contrary, he insisted, “The Palestinian Authority has committed itself to a policy of nonviolence. They are the only entity out there in that region that has committed themselves to nonviolence.”

He also painted a false picture of urgency, “We’re running out of time. We’re running out of possibilities. And let’s be clear: If we do not succeed now – and I know I’m raising those stakes – but if we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”

Kerry was speaking a few weeks after Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel in March 2013 where he had told the Israelis he wanted to focus on the peace process. Obama had enthusiastically taken on the role of peacemaker but, even then, had insisted a two-state solution had to be agreed upon within the next two years. This was after abortive efforts by Obama soon after his election to his first term where he managed to alienate both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In 2009, Obama had demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction, something the Palestinians had not requested. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a 10-month freeze but refused to include Jerusalem. The Palestinians, meanwhile, saw Obama’s inability to force Netanyahu to a total freeze as weakness. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate with Netanyahu during those 10 months and then used the expiration of the freeze as an excuse not to talk to him afterward.

Still, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, “Netanyahu always wanted negotiations with the Palestinians, and he supported Kerry’s effort.” He added, “He knows full well that he doesn’t believe Abbas is very likely to make the agreement he wants. He knows full well what the difficulties are, what the gaps are, what his own political obstacles are. But why on earth would he take any other position than: ‘Yeah, let’s try’?”

To jumpstart talks, Kerry assured Abbas that the U.S. position was that “Palestine’s borders with Israel should be based on the 1967 lines (more accurately the 1949 armistice lines) with mutually agreed swaps.” He also wanted Israel to offer the Palestinians a new carrot to entice them into negotiations, the release of 104 convicted murderers in Israeli jails. Netanyahu agreed to release the prisoners over the course of nine months. In exchange, Kerry agreed to essentially look the other way if Israel approved additional settlement construction and the Palestinians consented not to seek recognition from United Nations organizations.

While Abbas refused to meet with Netanyahu, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat began negotiations on July 29, 2013. On August 13, Israel released the first batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners.

At one point Erekat became enraged by Israel’s intent on expanding settlements, but Livni told him Israel was making a major concession and he should accept the construction as the price. She said one of the prisoners had murdered an elderly Holocaust survivor, another had stabbed two teenagers, and a third had hurled a firebomb at a bus, killing a mother and her children. “These are your heroes,” she said. “I don’t know why they are your heroes, but I pushed to release them to get these talks started so we could get a peace deal, so if I can do it, you can accept a few houses can be demolished. We can’t put those murderers back in jail, and I can’t get back three lives that were just taken.”

Kerry continued to put the onus for making concessions on Israel, suggesting at one point that there would be another Palestinian uprising if a peace agreement was not reached. He also pushed Netanyahu to understand the Palestinian perspective but the prime minister insisted that Palestinian incitement was the obstacle to peace.

Despite the disagreements, Israel released another 26 prisoners on October 28. A week later, Israeli negotiators said the Separation Wall would be the boundary between Israel and a Palestinian entity, not the 1949 armistice line. On November 14, the Palestinians said they were abandoning the talks because of the “escalation of settlement-building.” Meanwhile, ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud Party introduced legislation (which never passed) to annex the Jordan Valley to preempt any agreement to give the area to the Palestinians. Even as the Palestinians were declaring the talks a failure, Israel carried out the third release of 26 prisoners on December 30.

The Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans continued negotiations. At one point, Israeli and American leaders discussed ceding parts of the “Arab Triangle,” an area in northern Israel with a high concentration of Israeli Arabs, to the Palestinians in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Arabs living there, however, were adamantly against the idea. Netanyahu also faced opposition from within his party to any discussion of a withdrawal based on the 1949 armistice lines. The opposition Labor Party expressed a willingness to join the coalition to save the government if that was necessary to reach a peace agreement.

Israel announced plans for new settler homes in late January 2014 enraging the Palestinians. Abbas insisted that not a single settler would be allowed to live in a Palestinian state.

Giving up hope that an agreement could be reached by the April 29, 2014, deadline he had arbitrarily set, Kerry decided, like many of his predecessors, to write his own peace plan which was referred to as a “framework for negotiations.” Rather than get the parties to negotiate the terms of a deal, he hoped they would agree to his conception of a final settlement, which foresaw 80 percent of Jewish settlers living in areas annexed to Israel in exchange for a land swap. This was similar to the formula in the Clinton plan.

Kerry knew the key to getting Netanyahu’s agreement was to satisfy his security concerns, so he brought in John Allen, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to devise a plan that would provide Israel with the security guarantees the prime minister demanded.

Allen’s proposals, which included early warning capabilities and American technology, were viewed by some of the Israeli leadership as a positive step; however, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was unimpressed.

During the talks, Israel agreed to compensate some Palestinian refugees with the provision that Jews who were forced out of Arab countries also receive remuneration. Kerry considered it a major concession when Netanyahu agreed to admit some Palestinians refugees on a humanitarian basis; however, this was something his predecessors had agreed to and, in some cases, implemented. More significant, Kerry thought, was Netanyahu’s agreement to negotiate based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. Again, this was not a new position for Israel but it was a moderation of Netanyahu’s past statements. He did not budge, however, on his rejection of any division of Jerusalem. He also insisted on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

The Palestinians were unsatisfied by what Kerry saw as progress and convinced he was favoring the Israeli positions. Abbas adamantly opposed recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and complained about the new settlements.

Israel feared the Palestinians would withdraw from the talks if they went through with the final prisoner release scheduled for March 28, 2014, and insisted the Palestinians first agree to extend the April 29 deadline for the negotiations. On March 16, Kerry asked Abbas to agree to delaying the fourth prisoner release by a few days. Abbas refused and subsequently said this was a turning point in the negotiations because he realized the United States was not able or willing to use its leverage to pressure Israel to accept Palestinian terms.

The next day, Obama met Abbas at the White House after the U.S. had modified its proposal to be more sympathetic to Palestinian concerns, including agreeing the Palestinian capital would be in Jerusalem. “Don’t quibble with this detail or that detail,” Obama told him. “The occupation will end. You will get a Palestinian state. You will never have an administration as committed to that as this one.”

Kerry hoped to salvage the talks by convincing Israel to release another 400 prisoners and freeze settlement construction in exchange for extending the negotiations and the release of Jonathan Pollard. The convicted spy had nothing to do with the talks but Israel had been seeking his release for years and Kerry hoped this would be a sufficiently valuable carrot to entice Netanyahu to agree to continue negotiating. Obama, however, opposed releasing Pollard because of longstanding hostility to the idea from the intelligence community. He relented when Kerry said it was necessary to prevent the talks from collapsing.

Abbas insisted that Israel release the prisoners by April 1. While the Israelis were debating whether to accept Kerry’s proposal, they learned that Abbas announced the Palestinians would seek membership in fifteen UN conventions and international treaties. The Israelis were furious but agreed to release the prisoners if the Palestinians backed off. Abbas refused.

Kerry’s team tried to salvage the negotiations. Abbas made three demands for extending peace talks beyond the April deadline – that the borders of a future Palestinian state be dealt with during the first three months of the extended talks, that Israel froze all settlement construction, and that the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, including Israeli-Arabs, be released and none of them deported.

Israel would not agree to those demands; nevertheless, the United States thought an agreement to extend the deadline had been reached when officials were blindsided by the announcement on April 23, 2014, that Fatah and Hamas had agreed to create a unity government. Israel had for years made clear that no negotiations would be held with a Palestinian government that included the terrorist group and the Cabinet voted to suspend the talks.

After nine months, the Kerry initiative was dead.

Before leaving office, Obama infuriated Israel by abstaining rather than vetoing a UN Security Council resolution labeling settlements illegal. A few days later, in his last speech as secretary, rather than speak about the various foreign policy issues he had dealt with, Kerry spent more than an hour lambasting Israel for the failure to of his peace initiative.

Sources: John Kerry, “Remarks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum,” State Department, (June 3, 2013).
William Booth and Ruth Eglash, “Kerry’s nine-month quest for Middle East peace ends in failure,” Washington Post, (April 29, 2014).
Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon, “The Explosive, Inside Story of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble,” New Republic, (July 20, 2014).
Raphael Ahren, “Netanyahu initially welcomed Kerry’s peace initiative, ex-US envoy says,” Times of Israel, (March 21, 2018).
“2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks,” Wikipedia.

Photo: United States Department of State, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.