I was deeply disturbed last week when John Kerry felt compelled to retract his warning that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace with the Palestinians. What troubled me most was that Mr Kerry, after acknowledging that many Israelis have offered the same warning, apologised for using the word “apartheid” saying that “it is a word best left out of the debate”. In other words, Israelis can have this debate, but Americans can’t.
This brought to mind a comment I heard from former Senator Joseph Lieberman back in 2000 in which he acknowledged that it was easier to discuss issues like settlements and Jerusalem in the Israeli Knesset than to have the same debates in the US Senate.
How can the US lead Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking when it can’t have an honest debate about policy?
For more than two decades America has assumed a unilateral role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. During that time its leadership has repeatedly been tested. And all too often, it has come up short. The inability to pursue peace, independent of domestic political considerations, has had dramatic consequences. Not only has the US failed to help resolve the conflict, it has also contributed to a deterioration in the political environment. For decades, the US turned a blind eye to the daily realities confronting Palestinians living under a brutal occupation.
It is not merely a problem of American weakness and its inability to publicly criticise Israel. It is as if the US cannot bring itself to see Palestinians as equal human beings and to defend them when their rights are so flagrantly violated.
In other conflicts around the world the US defends innocent civilians who are victimised by collective punishment, it defends those who are imprisoned without charge or expelled from their homes without any due process, it decries “ethnic cleansing” and other violations of international human rights law and it maintains that it is the right of refugees to return to their homes and to reclaim lost property. But Israel has been put above the law, an exception to the rules.
The result of this gross imbalance in the approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is everywhere in evidence. Both societies have become driven by pathologies that have either been enabled or encouraged by US policy.
Listening to the debate inside Israel is as instructive as it is depressing. To be sure, there are Israelis who continue to champion human rights for Palestinians, but they do not have the upper hand.
Within the ruling government coalition, the dominant trend is to reject any recognition of Palestinian rights and any acceptance of even the most minimal withdrawal from the occupied territories. Not unlike spoilt children, they have internalised the fact that there are no sanctions for bad behaviour. Congress will always have their back, giving them what they want.
Meanwhile, Palestinians have internalised the idea that nothing they ever do will be good enough to earn the support of the United States. For them, there is no reward for good behaviour. Since Congress will never have their back, moderate Palestinian leaders feel exposed and vulnerable, while hardliners are emboldened to act out their anger and frustration, often in outrageous and deplorable ways.
US military leaders have been warning for decades that America’s failure to press for a just peace continues to cause grave damage to the ability of the US to work with Arab allies to protect our interests.
With the “peace process” at an impasse, America has a choice to make.
Instead of merely pushing for an extension of open-ended negotiations, it is time to decide whether America can muster the resolve to speak the truth to Israelis about their behaviour and its consequences. Congress may scream and political operatives may squirm, but if it is serious about peace then the US must show the way with decisive leadership.
Coddling the Israeli right only emboldens them – they know how to take advantage of an opening and play for time.
Firm pressure from America, will empower progressive Israelis who understand the deep hole being dug by their irredentist leaders. They should be supported in their efforts to make change. A firm challenge from America will help spur needed debate and change in Israel.
A decisive stand by America will also empower progressive Palestinians who are, at this point, under siege from Israel, on the one side, and Palestinian extremists and cynics, on the other. Moderates have little to show for their efforts and desperately need support. With America showing seriousness and resolve, the hand of Palestinians who have chosen the path of peace and non-violent resistance would be strengthened.
Will all this come to pass? While I’m not counting on it, I know that without such leadership, the US will surely fail. If the US cannot muster the strength to challenge Israel and play a constructive role in peacemaking, then it ought to get out of the way and let the Palestinians take their case to the International Criminal Court and, indeed, let the world community decide how to resolve this conflict that has lasted too long and taken too many Israeli and Palestinian lives.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa