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What does Kerry’s speech mean for U.S.-Israel relations?

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s tough, parting words on Israel and the recent UN Security Council resolution vote, former State Department officials James Jeffrey and Ilan Goldberg join Hari Sreenivasan to examine the state of relations between the two countries and what may come next under the Trump administration.

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    For more on Kerry's speech, the U.N. Security Council vote and the state of U.S.-Israel relations, we get the views of two people with extensive diplomatic experience in the Middle East.

    Retired Ambassador James Jeffrey was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. He's now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ilan Goldenberg was part of Secretary Kerry's negotiating team during the 2013-2014 final status talks. He's now at the Center for a New American Security.

    Gentlemen, I want to ask you both.

    Ilan Goldenberg, I want to start with you. What's your reaction to Kerry's speech today?

  • ILAN GOLDENBERG, Former State Department Official:

    Well, the speech, it would have been, I think, a more meaningful speech perhaps two years ago.

    And at the end of the day, it's sort of a swan song at the very end, but there are still some very valuable things in it. I think Kerry led really what was only the third time ever that we have had final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over the entire course of the history of the conflict.

    So I think he had things the add. I think it was also important in the context of the incoming administration that, you know, openly questioning whether or not we will continue to actually support the two-state solution, given who they have at least nominated to be the next ambassador to Israel.

    And in this context, I think more than anything what shown through, and as somebody who worked for Kerry on these issues both in the Senate and at the State Department, was the man clearly deeply cares about the issue. He clearly cares about the future of the Jewish state. And he was really willing to go out there, despite a lot of criticism, and say this.

    And I also thought the other thing I would say about the speech was it really — it was much more balanced, I would argue, than the U.N. Security Council resolution, really did address both the question of Palestinian incitement and support for violence, which is a key problem and a key obstacle in the future of the two-state solution, but it also gave, I think, the most eloquent explanation we have seen of what the problem with the settlement enterprise is.

    You can't have a situation where you have 90,000 Israeli settlers now living outside areas that even Israel acknowledges will be part of a future Palestinian state, and you try the remove just a few hundred of them, as Israel did a couple months ago, and is still debating, in this deep settlement Dimona, and it causes this huge political crisis.

    How are you ever going to get to a situation where you can actually get to a two-state solution or move the types of — do the types of population movements you're going to have to do to get to that agreement?


    James Jeffrey, your reactions?

  • JAMES JEFFREY, Former State Department Official:

    Well, let me start with the good.

    Kerry finished off by a six-point way forward which reflects longstanding U.S. policy, but it basically was done in a balanced and comprehensive way. So that's on the good side.

    Less good is the language of his explanation of what the United States was doing in the U.N. and what our basic policies are. Ilan is right. Kerry was much more temperate than that frankly crazy U.N. resolution, but he still made the same error, which is to blame the entire problem in the peace process on Israel and these settlements, and that isn't the only problem, and, secondly, to elevate this Israeli-Palestinian dispute to one of the key threats to security in the Middle East.

    Good grief. We just saw what happened in Syria with Aleppo. We have ISIS still on the road. We have Russia intervening in the region. This is not on anybody's top-level priority list in the Middle East. Why the administration at this late hour went into this thing the way it did, totally exasperating the Israelis, is beyond me.


    James Jeffrey, there have been U.N. Security Council resolutions that have come and gone for years and years. Why did this one have the type of diplomatic ripple effect that it's having?


    Good question.

    And I have been back all the way to 1947 and U.N. Resolution 181. Never have I seen language like this that the U.S. let go through, illegal acts by the Israelis, flagrant violation of international law and on and on and on, imperiling peace.

    I went back to Resolution 660, which was what the U.N. did when Saddam marched into Kuwait. That resolution is not as strong as this one. It's that kind of blaming Israel for everything thing that is emotional, has launched this reaction in Israel, and it will not help the cause of peace.

    When Palestinian leader Abbas gave his reaction to Kerry's speech, he gave the usual boilerplate about how, if Israel stops the settlements, we will continue to work together under international law.

    Now that resolution is international law, and it basically condemns the major Israeli negotiating point, trading land for peace, into the category of illegal occupation totally.


    Ilan Goldenberg, is there a significant change in the relationship between the United States and Israel? As Margaret pointed out in her tape, we just approved $38 billion in military aid.


    Well, first, I want to just go back to the last point Jim made. And I agreed with a lot of what he has to say.

    But I don't actually think that this resolution fundamentally changes international law or international standing. I think actually the language in it comes directly from the U.N. Security Council Resolution 465, which used the exact same language when discussing settlements.

    Obviously, there's problems with the language and the fact that, you know, the resolution doesn't differentiate between East Jerusalem and settlements that are deep in the West Bank. And I think ideally it would be good to have that kind of language.

    But it's just not true that language doesn't exist in any U.N. Security Council resolution. So, you can't get the Security Council to agree to it. So, that's why you have Kerry alternatively coming through and laying out the American position afterward, which very clearly talks about swaps that are agreed upon between the parties and addresses that concern.

    And actually even the resolution itself, to some extent, addresses that concern, when it has — when it says that swaps will be part of — will have to be agreed to between the parties.

    So, I really question the notion that this resolution fundamentally reorients overall the negotiating terms of the two-state solution. But I agree that the U.N. Security Council is ultimately and has been quite anti-Israel in its various positions over the years.

    The reason to abstain is because the language wasn't American policy and because the venue is not as credible as it could be if it was more balanced in its approach and actually dealt more seriously with other issues that Jim mentioned, like Syria and didn't single out the Israelis.

    So I would argue that the language doesn't fundamentally change anything. Settlements are still a huge problem. But, at the same time, you know, yes, but settlements are still a huge problem, but still this is better than any of the alternatives I saw out there.


    James Jeffrey, this is the strongest alliance that's existed in the world for decades. And how does what happened in literally one — couple of sentences at the U.N. Security Council with only about three or four weeks left in an administration change that alliance?


    It won't change the alliance fundamentally, because we'll have a new administration that gets to start from zero.

    But it will start with a new international status. Here's where I would disagree with Ilan. He's right about 465. He forgot to add that that was passed 36 years ago. Since then, we haven't seen any language like this. And that language does have an impact at the international level, as Israel tries to form formal and informal alliances on things like the fight against ISIS in the Sinai with Egypt, one of the countries that sponsored the resolution, and deconflict our operations in Syria and Lebanon with Russia.

    These things do count in international relations. And this is a very bad step.


    James Jeffrey, Ilan Goldenberg, thank you both.


    Thank you.

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