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Can Kerry convince Obama on final MidEast move?

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who labored relentlessly to promote the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, wants President Barack Obama to support a UN resolution against the settlements before leaving office.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RTSUY19

At first, US Secretary of State John Kerry was full of hope; he was eager and energized, and most of all, determined. Kerry was convinced that years of intimate familiarity with the Palestinian issue, his close friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his accomplishments with the Palestinian leadership would allow him to achieve what no one before him had: a permanent solution between the parties, or at the very least, a significant breakthrough on the way to achieving that.

We know how it ended. In a powerful but gloomy speech to the participants at the Saban Forum Dec. 4, Kerry exemplified what psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described as the fifth stage of grief. After experiencing denial, anger, bargaining and depression, Kerry has reached the last stage: acceptance. He finally understands the truth of the situation. He can smell the scent of defeat. For two years, Kerry was a prophet of rage, ranting and raving at the gates. In this talk, however, he seemed sad and empty, at peace with himself and all the wiser for the experience. He was no longer trying to convince anyone or reprimand them. He simply gave a warning, before leaving his position as secretary of state.

For decades, Kerry has been considered a close friend of Israel. He told his listeners that as secretary of state, he visited the country more than 40 times, had 355 telephone conversations with Netanyahu and spent another 130 hours in face-to-face meetings with him, and none of this includes informal conversations and meetings. He stood by Israel the entire time, even when the administration, and especially the White House, sometimes thought of him as an “Israeli agent.”

Al-Monitor has learned that Kerry was there when the US State Department refused to renew the US visa of Israeli billionaire Arnon Milchan after a TV report identified him as one of the people who helped to establish Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Kerry’s covert intervention as secretary of state ensured that Milchan’s visa was renewed.

Now that Kerry has abandoned his efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue, he decided to speak up. In his talk, he revealed new details about the security plan painstakingly developed by a team of 150 security experts, headed by Gen. John Allen. Kerry told his audience that many of Israel’s military and security chiefs supported the plan, but that then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Netanyahu rejected the plan in an almost disparaging manner.

Kerry continued that the security component of the final agreement was supposed to be handled by a special committee made up of Egyptians, Jordanians, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. He spoke about a special intervention unit, made up of Israeli commandos, to be stationed in the northern part of the Jordan Valley. In the event of a security crisis, the unit would be able to reach any point in the West Bank by helicopter in a matter of minutes. He also disclosed that Jordan’s King Abdullah agreed to construct a sophisticated security fence along the Jordan Valley, while the Palestinians would erect a similar fence on their side of the border. This, said Kerry, was intended as an appropriate response to Israel’s concerns that terrorist forces from the outside might infiltrate the Palestinian state. He noted that the Israeli withdrawal was to take place in stages, with each new stage commencing only after the previous stage had been completed successfully, with the Palestinians fulfilling all of their commitments. Despite these efforts, Kerry said, Israel rejected this security plan.

Kerry said he believed Israel was “heading to a place of danger." No, he had no regrets about the course he had taken or the efforts he poured into resolving the conflict. There were a few things that he would have done differently, but none were particularly significant.

In his remarks, Kerry hinted at a series of detailed maps prepared by the State Department, some of which were presented to Israeli representatives over the past few weeks. An Israeli security source told Al-Monitor that these maps show how the number of settlers living beyond the separation fence grew by about 20,000 during Netanyahu’s term in office (since 2009). This is an irreversible process (the Americans estimate), and if this trend continues, it would soon be impossible to implement a two-state solution. The American maps show how Israel has intentionally spread illegal outposts in specific regions so as to make the creation of a Palestinian state virtually impossible, and how various incidents — namely, Palestinian acts of terror — were directly related to the presence of Israeli settlements in certain areas. Kerry also spoke openly and candidly about a “unitary state,” the alternative circumstance in the event that the two-state solution gives up the ghost and can no longer be resuscitated. Is that really what you want? he asked his Israeli listeners.

While Kerry addressed the Saban Forum, a bitter fight was being waged behind the scenes over President Barack Obama and his decision, slow in coming, over what to do (or not to do) about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during his final days in office. Almost all of Obama’s advisers are pressuring him to do something. Kerry is spearheading these efforts.

By the end of November, Israeli concerns over an irreversible move by Obama in the UN Security Council began to fade away. The hints and signs reaching Jerusalem signaled that the US president would avoid doing anything drastic. He would rather not sully himself again in that murky quagmire. Then Kerry came to the Saban Forum to revive these waning concerns. He said that the door is still open, no decision has been made as of yet and there are still several options available. If it was up to him, he would avoid vetoing a resolution about the settlements, but the fact is that it is not up to him. The decision will be made by a cold, reasonable man, devoid of any vengeful emotions, and thoroughly temperate and practical. That person is Obama.

Will outrage at Israel’s recent actions, and particularly the passing of the settlement Regularization law in its preliminary reading in the Knesset Dec. 4, be enough to push Obama at the very last moment to react in an extreme manner, otherwise so unlike him? As of now, at least, Jerusalem believes that it will not.

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