Seriously, advice from John Kerry? (or: The one thing on which Israelis and Palestinians agree)

November 23, 2015

More than 20 Israelis were killed in the last two months as a result of Palestinian attacks. More than 90 Palestinians were killed in the same period. What story do these numbers tell? What conclusions are the two peoples drawing from the story these numbers tell?

For Israelis, the number of Palestinians killed does not really matter: They worry about their own, and they know that while Israelis were innocent in their untimely sudden deaths, most Palestinians were not — they were attackers, stabbers, active participants in the wave of violence in which they found their own deaths.

For Palestinians, the numbers of Palestinians killed is proof that they, yet again, are the victims. They do not see many of the Israelis killed in the attacks as innocent — a settler, an Israeli Jew living or passing through the West Bank, is never innocent. They have a story line incompatible with the Israeli narrative — and incompatible with reality.

Case in point: Recently, a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed near the Hawara checkpoint in the West Bank. She was first run over by a car driven by a well-known former settler leader, and then shot to death. In Palestinian radio reports and in formal announcements by the Palestinian Authority (PA), the tragic death of this young teen was presented as an Israeli execution of a blameless victim. The incident was presented in a detailed fashion and declared by the PA as a “brutal war crime against humanity and childhood,” omitting just one tiny nugget of information: Ashraqat Taha Ahmad Qatanani, from Nablus, was killed as she allegedly was running toward a young Israeli woman with a knife in hand.

A knife is no joke, as another recent attack proved — this time an attack in which the Palestinian aggressor was quicker than his Israeli victims. He, the 34-year-old attacker, was a man with no previous known involvement with terrorism. She, the victim, was a 21-year-old woman just coming back from half a year of traveling in India. She is counted as one of the more than 20 Israelis killed. He is counted as one of the more than 90 Palestinians killed. They are both part of two contradicting narratives that currently show no signs of merging.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry was slated to arrive in Tel Aviv on Nov. 24 for visits to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority, in an attempt to stop the ongoing violence. After more than a year of absence — a year in which U.S.-Israeli tensions have reached a new height — his visit should be welcomed as a healthy sign of things coming back to normal, even if they are still tense.

Kerry has had his share of disappointment with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he still seems to believe that an achievement was denied him by a belligerent Israeli position. One quality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that never ceases to amaze me is its ability to delude leaders into believing that they are painfully close to sealing a final status agreement to end all hostility. Kerry, not the sharpest among these negotiators, will be joining that pathetic chorus of we-almost-made-it leaders — American and Israeli.

He was not even close, nor was former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — another leader who recently gave Israelis the impression that the peace deal was within reach when he was in office. His Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, admitted that he rejected Olmert’s generous offer, and said that he had to do it because Olmert was not willing to leave the offer — a map of the territory Olmert was willing to hand to the PA — with him.

This was no coincidence. Olmert, as irresponsible as he might have been with the offer (this is surely the view of most Israelis today), was responsible enough to know that handing Abbas the map would have made the map a starting point for negotiation rather than an end result. He was also responsible enough to know that its rejection means more than a technical debate over the mechanism of peace-making. Abbas did not accept the offer because he cannot accept any offer that is acceptable to Israelis.

Kerry possibly understands some of this, and yet is still somewhat bitter at the fact that he was denied his peace-making glory. Now he comes to the region at the worst imaginable time. Violence is up, American prestige is down. Israelis and Palestinians are fighting with one another, but one thing they have in common is a very low regard for the Obama administration and its diplomatic prowess. Looking around at the result of seven years of Obama policies in the Middle East does not give Israelis or Palestinians much appetite to accept any advice from any American diplomat.

Can you blame them?

Kerry is going to suggest that Israel should vigorously assist the Palestinian economy. He is going to plea with Israel not to enact measures that will make more Palestinians desperate. 

In fact, that is what the Israeli government insists on doing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and even more so his Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, are adamant in resisting the calls from the right to take harsher measures against the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Ya’alon reportedly had a meeting last week with Likud political operatives who were critical of what they thought was his over-mellow approach, and in that meeting, he was able to convince some of them that his way of doing things is the right way.

But with every attack and every Israeli killed, the pressure from within Israel for more aggressive means is building. And it is not just the attacks. When it comes to politicians, politics is also a point of great consideration. The more we hear about Netanyahu’s desire to expand his coalition — and after he was able to pass the budget such talk is in abundance — the more he will be criticized by his coalition’s right-wing partner, the Habayit Hayehudi Party and its leader, Naftali Bennett.

Bennett sees himself as a future prime minister of Israel and is not in awe of the current one. He also represents the party that has the support of many of the settlers, the community that is currently most exposed daily to Palestinian violence. Bennett would not agree to Israeli acceptance of the new situation of violent attacks against Israelis as the new normal. On Nov. 23, just 24 hours before the Kerry visit, he was giving advice to the prime minister — that is, talking to him through the airwaves — that was the opposite of the advice given by the secretary of state.

Prime minister of Israel — what a thankless job.

Netanyahu has to listen to the unworthy advice of Kerry because America is a great friend and because Israel, with all its disappointment with the Obama administration, has no better friend. Israel also asked for more financial assistance to bolster its defenses after the agreement with Iran, and beggars can’t be choosers. 

Netanyahu also has to listen to the unworthy advice of Bennett, because Habayit Hayehudi is a partner in Netanyahu’s coalition and because many of Netanyahu’s voters are natural supporters of the Bennett approach. With all of his disappointment with Bennett, Netanyahu currently has no substitute. He wants his coalition to survive, and Bennett is key to such survival. So, again, beggars can’t be choosers.

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