Kerry’s speech raises troubling questions about Israel

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Villa Taverna, the U.S. ambassador's residency in Rome, on Oct. 23. [Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASh90 photo]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Dec. 28 speech following the American abstention on the recent UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity (along with Palestinian terrorism and incitement) provides at least three major takeaways.

First, the reaction by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs gives us reason to be suspicious of the way the self-described Israel lobby for Canada’s Jewish community reasons through political matters.

“No Palestinian leader has affirmed the right of the Jewish People to self-determination and a state in the Middle East,” CIJA head Shimon Koffler Fogel said in a statement in response to Kerry’s speech. Casual observers will likely take this to mean that the Palestinian leadership has not acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. But that is patently false. Former Israeli prime minister Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat exchanged mutual letters of recognition as part of the 1993 Oslo agreement. Arafat’s letter could not have been clearer: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”

It is true that the Palestinian leadership has not affirmed Israel’s identity as a “Jewish” state, something Fogel demands when he says that “None of these gestures [i.e., resolutions, speeches or another “recycled formula for peace” from the international community] will resolve the conflict without Palestinian willingness to negotiate directly and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state.”

But it is not up to other political leaders to affirm another state’s self-declared ethnic or religious identity. The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” is a way to bypass a major issue for negotiation – the refugee issue –and to potentially set back the struggle for legal and structural equality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens in Israel. CIJA’s leadership must know this as well as anyone. Obscuring, rather than clarifying, helps no one.

Second, Kerry’s speech was historic in mentioning the Nakba and outlining some of the specific hardships of life under occupation. Still, while Kerry mentioned that the Palestinians “suffered terribly in the 1948 war,” the political entity perpetrating the Nakba against the Palestinians – the series of acts of dispossession, violence and exile – was left unnamed. Just as CIJA’s demand that the Palestinians recognize the “Jewishness” of Israel, this omission reminds us that the Palestinian refugee issue looms large as a point of justice-seeking and reconciliation.

‘The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” is a way to bypass a major issue for negotiation’

Finally, the speech raises an uncomfortable question. Kerry claims that forging a two-state solution is the only way to “ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.” But in its current form – a country running a nearly half-century long, patently undemocratic occupation, where Israeli West Bank residents are governed by civil law and Palestinian West Bank residents are governed by Israeli military law – is Israel really a democracy?

Some democracy-watchdog organizations, such as Freedom House, contend with this paradox by separating Israel proper from Gaza and the West Bank when it issues its annual “freedom in the world” ratings.

But neither is “Israel proper,” that is, Israel within its pre-1967 borders, perfectly democratic, in a liberal sense. Even after Palestinian citizens were freed from the Israeli military regime that governed them (and only them) until 1966, there remain many structural inequalities between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. For this reason, one Israeli scholar has coined the term “ethnocracy.” Perhaps this is a fair answer, one that is nuanced enough to capture the complexity.

But when my students, looking to the occupation specifically, ask me this semester whether Israel is a democracy or whether it is a different kind of regime, an ugly label that circulates in activist circles, I will turn the question back to them: can a country whose military occupation is dragging on endlessly claim the mantle of democracy? I suspect their answer will stem from whether they see the imperative of human rights as being truly universal.

Mira Sucharov is a columnist at The CJN, Haaretz and The Jewish Daily Forward and a political scientist at Carleton University.