It was the “poof” heard ‘round the world. Or at least halfway ‘round the world. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry described the sequence of events leading to the current crisis in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which came to a head with the announcement of 700 new Israeli settlement homes.
“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said. “We find ourselves where we are.”
To back up a bit, last July Kerry successfully got the two sides back to the table for nine months of talks by securing concessions from both. The Palestinians agreed to pause their efforts to gain membership in international organizations, which they are now able to do as a consequence of being accepted as a “non-member observer state” by the United Nations in 2012. The Israelis agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1994 Oslo Accords, in four tranches, the last of which was to have been released on March 29.
As March 29 approached, the Israelis made clear that they might not release the final group of prisoners if the Palestinians did not agree to extend the talks beyond the April deadline (which had not been a condition of the original agreement). March 29 came and went with no prisoner release. Kerry and his team worked diligently to fashion a deal that would extend the talks into 2015.
Then, on April 1, Israeli Minister of Housing Uri Ariel—a member of the right-wing party Jewish Home—signed tenders for 700 new homes in the Jerusalem-area settlement of Gilo. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded later that day by signing papers to join 15 international conventions.
It’s amazing how much coverage a single word can generate. Even though State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki attempted to clarify later that day that Kerry had placed responsibility on both sides, which indeed he had, the Israeli government declared itself “deeply disappointed” in his remarks. The suggestion that Israel might be at fault was also simply too much for some of its U.S. partisans to bear.
“By whoring after a deal he couldn’t get to satisfy his own wounded pride and fulfill his own vainglorious wants,” neoconservative pundit John Podhoretz vented in the New York Post, Kerry “has been exposed for all to see as a deceitful, pompous, self-righteous and vindictive fool—not to mention a world-historical two-time loser.”
Over at The Wall Street Journal, John’s dad Norman took his own swipe. “Provoked by the predictable collapse of the farcical negotiations forced by Secretary of State John Kerry on the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Podhoretz the Elder wrote, “I wish to make a confession: I have no sympathy—none—for the Palestinians.” (Does this actually qualify as a confession? Was anyone, anywhere, unclear on this point?) The main reason for this lack of sympathy for the Palestinians, Podhoretz explains, is that “ever since the day of Israel's birth in 1948, they have never ceased declaring that their goal is to wipe it off the map.”
Now, this is odd. In 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stating, “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” In 2012, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations to gain recognition for the State of Palestine, in 22 percent of what had been British Mandate Palestine, alongside Israel, which takes up the remaining 78 percent. (One can agree or disagree with this approach—the U.S. and Israel strongly disagreed—but one really cannot seriously claim that it’s consistent with an effort to “wipe Israel off the map.”)
Both pieces, Podhoretz the Younger’s tantrum and the Elder’s defiant historical ignorance, reveal the vitriol unleashed when the U.S. actually assigns blame appropriately in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. There will undoubtedly be much more to come. It’s unfortunate that one word—“poof”—is drawing attention away from the fact that Kerry was, at the end of the day, genuinely even-handed in assigning responsibility to both sides for problematic steps, while also being quite clear in identifying one particular and longstanding problem—Israeli settlement construction—that continues to bedevil negotiations. This is precisely the sort of frankness that we’ll need more of if the process is going to progress.