Rhetorical Battles Over Settlements Overshadow Massive US Military Aid and Protection of Israel at the UN
There’s no fundamental shift in US policy, but Kerry’s remarks suggest that the US is opposed to Israel as a Jewish state as part of a two-state solution, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown.
The Obama Administration continues to defend its decision to abstain from last week’s UN Security Council vote where a resolution sharply critical of Israeli settlements passed overwhelmingly. Aside from accusations of betrayal and hostility, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are now being accused of allegedly colluding with other Security Council Members to orchestrate this vote in the first place.
Well, joining us for some analysis of this unfolding story, we’re joined with Phyllis Bennis. She is a fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She is also the author of many books, including Understanding the Palestinian Conflict: A Primer. She joins us today from Washington. Phyllis, thank you so much for being here.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Kim.
KIM BROWN: So, Phyllis, Secretary Kerry spoke at the State Department on Wednesday and here’s some of what he had to say:
JOHN KERRY: Despite our best efforts over the years, the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy. The truth is that trends on the ground — violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation — they are combining to destroy hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want. Today, there are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality — if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, it cannot be both.
KIM BROWN: Phyllis, the Obama Administration’s position seems to be that the continued colonization of Israel into occupied territory is not only undermining the peace process and the possibility of a two-state solution, but it’s also undermining Israeli national security. Do they have this right, or do they have this wrong?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think that what they have right is in recognizing that the two-state solution is dead in the water. Now, Secretary Kerry didn’t exactly say that. He used this more tenuous language about, “If the current developments continue, we will face the reality of a one-state solution.” What exists now is one state. What exists now is an apartheid state, where you have one territory between, as he said, the river and the ocean, including all of Israel, all of the West Bank, all of Occupied East Jerusalem and all of the Gaza Strip. You have one territory with one governing force which is Israel — the Palestinian Authority has very little authority — but you have separate judicial systems. And whether you’re vulnerable to one judicial system or the other, the Israeli system or the Palestinian military occupation system, depends on issues of race and ethnicity and religion. That’s the definition of apartheid.
So, what exists now is one apartheid state. Secretary Kerry didn’t quite acknowledge that, but he actually came close in a sort of interesting way. His whole speech seemed to be aimed at defending the idea of a two-state solution — something that most observers believe now to be not possible anymore, because the settlement process has simply stripped away the reality of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state in all of the West Bank, all of Gaza and all of East Jerusalem. Something that would be already a kind of micro-state, a truncated Bantustan, if you will. But cut into its tiny pieces as it is now, it certainly isn’t viable.
KIM BROWN: So, how can–
PHYLLIS BENNIS: here was a–
KIM BROWN: I’m sorry, go ahead.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I was just going to say there’s a recognition there that what is facing the world on the ground now is not going to be a viable two-state solution, but is going to be something else — and it’s all from the vantage point of “how do we protect Israeli interests?” That was the whole thrust of Secretary Kerry’s remarks. He started with this very defensive posture, in which he focused on how pro-Israel the Obama Administration has been, really sort of responding to pressure from inside the Washington bubble and from Israel itself. He was not recognizing the degree to which public opinion has shifted so dramatically in recent years, so that criticizing Israel is no longer political suicide in the United States. He simply didn’t get it.
KIM BROWN: Well, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave comments from Jerusalem shortly after Secretary Kerry made his comments. Let’s hear from the Prime Minister, very briefly:
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I have no doubt that our alliance will endure the profound disagreement we have had with the Obama Administration and will become even stronger in the future. But now I must express my deep disappointment with the speech today of John Kerry. A speech that was almost as unbalanced as the anti-Israel Resolution passed at the UN last week.
KIM BROWN: And, as you mentioned, Phyllis, that John Kerry was vigorously defending the Obama Administration’s record for support on Israel. Let’s take a listen to Secretary Kerry, as well:
JOHN KERRY: In fact, this Administration has been Israel’s greatest friend and supporter with an absolutely unwavering commitment to advancing Israel’s security and protecting its legitimacy. On this point, I want to be very clear: No American Administration has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama’s. The Israeli Prime Minister himself has noted our “unprecedented military intelligence cooperation”. Time and again we have demonstrated that we have Israel’s back. We have strongly opposed boycotts, divestment campaigns and sanctions targeting Israel in international for a — whenever and wherever its legitimacy was attacked and we have fought for its inclusion across the UN system. In the midst of our own financial crisis and budget deficits, we repeatedly increased funding to support Israel. In fact, more than one-half of our entire global foreign military financing goes to Israel. And this fall, we concluded an historic $38-billion Memorandum of Understanding that exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country at any time. And that will invest in cutting-edge missile defense and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come. That’s the measure of our support.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: There has never been an Administration in Washington as pro-Israeli as this one, despite the rhetorical battles between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlements. It never challenged the continuing US protection of Israel in the UN and the massive amounts of military aid that was being provided. So, it’s in that context that it’s very interesting to see right now the very small shifts that we do see under way in the US position. They’re not fundamental. The US is saying, “We want to continue being the full backer of Israel. You’re just making it really hard.”
But we did see a couple of small shifts. One was on the question of the nature of a two-state arrangement, in which Secretary Kerry said and repeated the need for both states — meaning Israel and a putative Palestinian state — to treat all citizens equally. That really undermines the notion of the legitimacy of Israel as a “Jewish state” in which Jews are privileged over non-Jews — what exists now inside Israel where 20% of the population is Palestinian inside the original borders of Israel, and those citizens do not have equal rights by law. And it’s a situation that the US has never commented on, that I’m aware of.
So, that was a significant thing when Kerry emphasized that both Israel and Palestine would be obligated to have equal rights for all its citizens. Right now, Palestinian citizens face more than 50 separate laws that discriminate against non-Jews, even if they are citizens. Not all rights are determined by citizenship. So that was a significant shift.
But the most important thing I think that we saw just there is the sense where I think Secretary Kerry was absolutely wrong in thinking that most Americans are going to think it’s a good thing that, at a time when people in the US are facing the loss of jobs, no healthcare, bad education, no access to advanced education, that people somehow are going to think it’s a good thing to give Israel $38 billion of our tax money for their military. I think that he was really undermining his own effort here by saying, “We have given up everything, even when we were facing economic crisis.” Well, when we were facing economic crisis, we should have been spending that money at home, on jobs and education and healthcare and infrastructure — and maybe some foreign aid around the world to make up for all the damage that US military assaults have done, rather than giving that money to the Israeli military. So, I don’t think he was making much of a case.
KIM BROWN: Indeed, and as we heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu in that earlier clip, he alluded to how the alliance between Israel and the United States will be stronger going forward, obviously referring to the incoming President-elect Donald Trump, who tweeted, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Israel will again have a friend in Washington come January 20th. But, as you said, $38-billion in military aid seems to be pretty friendly coming from the United States to another somewhat wealthy nation in Israel. So what could we expect from the incoming Trump Administration? How would they operate differently when it comes to a UN Security Council vote, for example, regarding Israeli settlements?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think there’s no question that a Trump Administration will go back to what has been the practice of the Obama Administration, which is to veto any resolution that, as in this case, holds the settlements to be illegal.
Now, the problem is it’s a lot easier to veto a future resolution than it is to try and get rid of the current resolution. So, this resolution will stand for a while and the significance of the resolution has far more to do with developments outside of the United States, particularly in Europe, where European actors — a few governments but particularly civil society, the boycott divestment sanctions movements and other movements — have been pushing very hard for a move to, among other things, begin to sanction Israeli exports of produce and other goods into Europe in a tax-free environment when they’re not produced in Israel but are produced in settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There’s been a struggle around that going on for almost 20 years now in Europe.
This decision by the Security Council is going to be a great tool for those in Europe who are pushing for sanctions against Israel. That’s not going to change with a Trump Administration, even if the Trump Administration threatens to veto future resolutions. This one will stand. So, I think that’s quite important.
It’s also, though, I think, something we have to recognize, Trump has already said that his Ambassador to Israel will be David Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer, who may be a great bankruptcy lawyer, but has no experience in diplomacy, but is known for funding Israeli settlements, as is Donald Trump himself, who has donated money to settlements. So, the notion that the US is going to continue with any level of criticism of settlements, let alone the view that they are illegal, which was now said for the first time by the Obama Administration — no administration since that of Jimmy Carter has called the settlements illegal. So, that was an important move by the Obama Administration.
We will see immediately after January 20th, I anticipate, a return to a much more… a view that not only supports Israel in the ways that matter, meaning money, military support, and diplomatic protection in the United Nations, but we will also see an end to the political bickering in which we saw consistent criticism of the settlements from President Obama, from Secretary of State Kerry and others, even though that never had any impact on what US policy, in terms of money, arms and protection, ever exactly amounted to.
KIM BROWN: Exactly. Because, as you said, the amount of money and arms from the United States flowing to Israel, that spigot was never turned off or decreased at all, with the exception of these comments, as you said, from Secretary Kerry and President Obama, and the negotiation and eventual signing of the Iran Deal.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: But those comments had nothing to do with the arms deals.
KIM BROWN: Correct but using this like a bit of some cumulous events as to why Prime Minister Netanyahu has such harsh words for this Administration who, as you said, has stepped up in a way for Israel that no other previous administrations had and yet, Prime Minister Netanyahu has not hesitated to offend President Obama or even snub him, at least in the case of when he gave an address to Congress to both Houses about being formally invited by the White House. So, how much of this was somewhat personal, or somewhat retaliatory from the Obama Administration to Prime Minister Netanyahu?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: What we’re dealing with, with Netanyahu, is that as right-wing as he is and has been since winning his first election to the Knesset and then later into his position as Prime Minister, as right-wing as he is, he is not by any means the far-right of the Israeli political system. In his own governing coalition, he is perhaps the center, perhaps even center-left of that coalition because the coalition is made up of such extremists.
You know, it was interesting when Secretary Kerry talked about incitement, he spoke only of what he calls Palestinian incitement. He did not even mention the incitement that comes from Israeli Cabinet Members, such as the Justice Minister, who two years ago posted on Facebook a long post in which she said, “All Palestinians, not just militants, all Palestinians are the enemies of Israel and they should all be killed. That the mothers should be killed when their sons are killed, because if they don’t, they will breed, what she called more little snakes.” If that isn’t incitement, I don’t know what is. But that was not even mentioned by Secretary Kerry.
But that gives a sense of just how extreme the Israeli government is, and in that context, Netanyahu is speaking to his right, he’s trying to win over his right wing. He also knows that after January 20th there will be a very different administration in Washington, which he is assuming, probably right as far as we can tell right now, who will accept and welcome all of his most extreme Islamophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian rhetoric as something that the Trump Administration will welcome. So, he’s looking to both more support from the United States and looking to make sure he shores up his own support in his own right wing.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She is a fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She’s the author of several books, including Understanding the Palestinian Israeli Conflict: A Primer. You should definitely pick that up. Phyllis, we appreciate your time today. Thank you.
PHYLLIS: Thank you, Kim.
KIM: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.