Why the Strong Words from the United States on Israel?

The Obama administration would do the entire world a service if it replaced its failed legacy in Arab-Israeli peace-making with a precise, global consensus that might form the foundation for more successful future efforts.

Words are only words, but words often matter if they are the first step towards action, especially when uttered by a global power. This is the case with a striking statement by the United States government Wednesday afternoon on Israeli actions in occupied Palestinian lands.

The statement—and it is just a statement to date, not a new policy decision or a presidential executive order—was made by John Kirby, the U.S. State Department assistant secretary and spokesperson. It is noteworthy for its unusually sharp, specific tone in criticizing multiple Israeli state policies that the U.S. opposes. Its tough criticisms of Israeli settlements expansion, home demolitions, land seizures, legalizations of outposts, and denial of Palestinian development do not break new ground, for the U.S. has made such criticisms before. But never in my recollection has Washington combined such harsh language with multiple Israeli activities and the warning that such Israeli policies effectively shut the door on a peace process leading to a two-state solution.

Therefore we ask, “So what?” Is this the last big gesture on Arab-Israeli peace-making that many analysts and observers had expected the Obama administration to make before it leaves office? Is it the beginning of other substantive diplomatic actions it might take in its last three months in office? Or is it something in between—a strong rhetorical marker that unambiguously lays out the U.S. position on Israel’s policies, preparing the ground for more to follow? The U.S. government statement is worth quoting in full:

We are deeply concerned by reports today that the Government of Israel has published tenders for 323 units in East Jerusalem settlements. This follows Monday’s announcement of plans for 770 units in the settlement of Gilo. We strongly oppose settlement activity, which is corrosive to the cause of peace. These steps by Israeli authorities are the latest examples of what appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two- state solution. In just the past few weeks, we have seen reports of the advancement of plans for 531 units in Ma’ale Adumim, 19 in Har Homa, 120 in Ramot, and 30 in Pisgat Ze’ev; the advancement of a plan to retroactively legalize an outpost near Ramallah; and the issuance of tenders for 42 units in Kiryat Arba.

We are also concerned about recent increased demolitions of Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which reportedly have left dozens of Palestinians homeless, including children.‎ More than 650 Palestinian structures have been demolished this year, with more Palestinian structures demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem thus far than in all of 2015. As the recent Quartet Report highlighted, this is part of an ongoing process of land seizures, settlement expansion, legalizations of outposts, and denial of Palestinian development that risk entrenching a one-state reality of perpetual occupation and conflict. We remain troubled that Israel continues this pattern of provocative and counterproductive action, which raises serious questions about Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

Among the noteworthy aspects of these words is that the United States uses the terms “settlements” and “occupation,” which is what the Palestinians and the rest of the world use to describe these phenomena, while the Israeli government prefers to use other words (“neighborhoods” and “disputed, annexed, or administered territories”) that seek to disguise its illegal, and thus criminal, actions. Also, it is unusual for the U.S. government in a single rhetorical blast to describe Israeli policies as, “systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution (…being) corrosive to the cause of peace (…and reflecting) a pattern of provocative and counterproductive action, which raises serious questions about Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”

The timing of this statement, during the convention that nominated Hillary Clinton for president, is intriguing, and may have aimed to set in stone some basic American positions that the next administration would hesitate to change. We should find out more about this in the weeks ahead.

The Obama administration would do the entire world a service if it replaced its failed legacy in Arab-Israeli peace-making with a precise, global consensus that might form the foundation for more successful future efforts. The issues mentioned in this statement and others that touch on related issues (Jerusalem, mutual recognition, refugees) should be harnessed to shape a powerful global coalition of states that would embed these positions in new UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, leading to bilateral and multilateral negotiating mechanisms.

A strong global coalition that emphatically seeks the best interests and legitimate rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, and is anchored in the rule-of-law provisions of the UN, now seems to be the only option for moving ahead with a diplomatic initiative that results in a viable two-state solution and an end of the conflict. The strong, clear words in this latest U.S. statement should be the first steps towards such action that would serve the best interests of the entire world.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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