Why John Kerry is (mostly) right about settlements

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem [Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Israel Sun photo]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

It is disturbing to hear the response from many that we should all “Stand with Israel” in the aftermath of outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s stunning rebuke. To treat any criticism of Israel or its government as a challenge to the very existence of the Jewish state is the worst form of slippery slope argumentation. It is devoid of nuance, or even recognition that one can be more supportive of Israel by criticism than by unquestioning praise.

Kerry said that if Israel continues to build “facts on the ground” – that is, settlement after settlement in the West Bank –  it will kill the possibility of a two-state solution.

There are 2.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. If they are all denied citizenship, and the right to vote, then Israel can no longer be a democratic state.

On the other hand, if those Palestinians become a part of a single Israeli state, if they are granted citizenship and added to the current population of 1.7 million Israeli Arabs, then it will not be long before they form the majority. As a result, Israel would no longer be a Jewish state.

So Kerry was right when he said, “if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both. And it won’t ever really be at peace.”

But he was not right in underplaying the serious external threat to Israel.

In this regard, we so-called “progressive” supporters of Israel are far from naïve. Is there a significant element in the West Bank that would engage in terrorist attacks on Israel were a two-state solution imposed? Of course there is. The experience with Hamas and the ill-planned retreat from Gaza is proof enough, let alone Israel’s constant battles with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the threat of radical Islamic terrorists and their state sponsors, including Iran.

Nor can anyone reasonably suggest that a two-state solution be imposed overnight. The Palestinian Authority is weakened. There is a genuine risk that Hamas would take over the West Bank were it suddenly to become an autonomous state. This is too great a threat to Israel.

‘To treat any criticism of Israel as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish state is the worst form of slippery slope argumentation’

Is Israel held to a double standard? Of course it is. No reasonable person could suggest that there is any moral equivalency between the Israeli government’s failure to reign in extremists hell-bent on expanding settlements and the vile human rights abuses perpetuated by ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

But the fact that horrific atrocities occur elsewhere should not relieve the Israeli government of scrutiny.

The point is that Israel has achieved a lasting peace with former bitter enemies, such as Egypt and Jordan. It has done so through the efforts of courageous leaders. In contrast, the current leadership repeatedly caves to the settlers and their political parties who flout Israeli Supreme Court injunctions, build illegal “outposts” so as to create the facts on the ground that will make a future two-state solution impossible. Nor has the current government offered a credible peace plan in exchange for mutually agreed upon land swaps.

Settlement expansion creates an existential threat to Israel. It is hard to imagine a better recruitment tool for Iran and ISIS than Israeli settlers spreading throughout the West Bank, ensuring permanent conflict with the Palestinians and the Muslim world. What better way to distract the world from the vile human rights abuses perpetuated by Iran and ISIS.

Kerry was mostly right to call out the Netanyahu government for its repeated failures and cowardice. And he was also right in reminding progressive elements  – in Israel and the Diaspora –  that the path to peace can only be a two-state solution. While Israel has many external enemies, it also should not lose sight of the enemies to peace that are thriving within.

Hart Schwartz is the past chair of JSpaceCanada.