The new U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, has openly affirmed his commitment to achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Iran and the Syrian crisis may be topping the agenda his current visit to the region, but most analysts believe he will use his first trip as America’s top diplomat to signal his interest in future negotiations. VOA’s Cecily Hilleary this week sat down with Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now (APN). Prior to his work at APN, Nir worked for Haaretz Daily, Israel’s leading newspaper, where he covered Palestinian affairs and Israel’s Arab minority. We asked him what Kerry would have to do in order to get both sides talking again.
Nir: It seems like [the time is] not now, unless there is a broader, more detailed, sophisticated plan here – and there could be. There could be a plan that would be developed down the road. What do I mean by that? I think you have to see this visit in the perspective of President Obama’s first term. What was missing, in the eyes of many, from his relationship with Israel in his first term and what he may want to achieve in the second term, coming in fresh, what was missing – and he’s been told that by many people, and as far as I know from talking to senior Administration officials, there is a recognition that that was a mistake – [was] a visit to Israel. A visit to Israel that from the beginning would establish a relationship of trust with the Israelis. Not so much with the leaders – in other words, of course you need a relationship of trust with the leaders – but what was missing from his relationship with Israel in the first term was this kind of bedrock foundation of trust with the Israeli people, which would allow the U.S. – and particularly the president – to play the role of an honest broker, of a shepherd, of whatever noun you want to use here for the U.S. role in shepherding the peace process.
“The U.S. commitment to Israel is not doubted. It’s the personal relationship. People personify things.” – Ori Nir
As a result of that and as a result of other things, his ratings were low. President Obama started his presidency with a speech to the Arab world in Cairo, if you remember. It was a very good speech. It resonated in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it resonated negatively in Israel – because it was not complemented, supplemented by an equivalent speech in Israel. He didn’t go from Cairo to Jerusalem – from Cairo to Tel Aviv – to give a speech to the Israeli people and tell them things that would allay their concerns….
Hilleary: One could argue that the U.S. reassures Israel on a weekly basis that it is our strongest ally in the region, it gives a lot of aid to Israel. Do you really think that the Israeli people doubt the U.S. commitment to Israel?
Nir: The U.S. commitment to Israel is not doubted. It’s the personal relationship. People personify things. There’s nothing you can do about that. And with President Obama, he was at a deficit coming in – unjustified, I think, but there were lots of rumors about who he was and his background and his pro-Israel credentials – doubts and fears. And he did not do the natural outreach of just going there and talking to people in order to allay those fears.
Now, one might ask, “Why would the U.S. president have to hold the hand of the Israeli public and stroke it?” And that’s a fair question to ask. The fact of the matter is that if you want to have a credible peace process going, if an Israeli prime minister wants to come to his public and say, “I need your support when I go into this,” you need Israeli public support. It’s a necessary component for a credible peace process. Israel is a democratic country. Any kind of a peace agreement that would be reached in the future would be brought to the Israeli public in a referendum. They will have to vote on it and support it. And they would have to give their leaders the kind of authorization, the mandate they would need to go into a process that would require pretty painful concessions in security terms, issues like Jerusalem, etc. For that kind of support to be there, the natural broker of a peace agreement – which is the United States and in this case, the president of the United States, really must establish that kind of a relationship with the Israeli public. And I think that what is happening here is that President Obama is coming in intentionally, I think, without an actual detailed peace proposal or a new plan or parameters, as President Clinton did at the time, but coming in just to establish rapport.
Hilleary: You get the feeling that [President Obama] is really going to leave the details up to the new secretary of state who, according to some sources, is really “obsessed” with being the one to finally achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. At the same time, if you look at the conditions on the ground on both sides – the conditions for peace are just not there.
Nir: I see what you mean. First, I agree with you that Secretary Kerry is very committed to the issue. He’s talked about it in the past. We’ve seen his track record in the Senate. I think that, definitely, you have in him the kind of person, if authorized by the president to carry that burden and to go into it as the future shepherd of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Kerry would be very good at that.
The question of whether there are the circumstances that could bring about a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process, you’re right, that as it seems at the moment, we don’t seem to have the necessary components, mainly a willing Israeli leader. There isn’t the kind of political will that would be needed in order to get things going. But as we’ve seen before in the region and particularly with Israeli society and Israeli politics, things change and they change sometimes on a dime. And the most unexpected developments could come with some of the most unexpected people. You saw it with Ariel Sharon, you saw it with Menachem Begin in the past; the boldest moves towards peace actually came from people who were hawks.
Hilleary: Ehud Olmert.
Nir: Ehud Olmert, even Yitzhak Rabin came from Labor and was a different kind of a hawk – but he was a hawk. Even Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who has signed agreements in the past and who has negotiated with Yasser Arafat – you could see something coming out of him, particularly at this moment when he is actually weak. He came out of the last elections particularly weak.
Hilleary: Absolutely – but why would you say he would be in a position to do something, if he were politically weak?
Nir: Because he could be more subject to pressure domestically by potential coalition partners. You know a coalition has not yet been formed in Israel. Potentially, if he forms a coalition with the type of people who would be interested in a peace process, and his first potential partner who has already signed an agreement is Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, who is very invested in the issue of the peace process. That was the only real flag on her platform when she ran in the elections in January.
Hilleary: But on the other side, you have Naftali Bennett—
Hilleary: Yair Lapid.
Nir: Lapid is not a hawk. Lapid, actually, one of his conditions for joining the coalition – officially, when he was still running – we’ll see how that plays out, everything is possible in Israeli politics – but one of his conditions for joining the coalition was that there would be a real peace process going.
Hilleary: But in the past, he has made statements. He certainly does not support dividing Jerusalem, he has feelings about the settlements.
Nir: Yes, that’s true. So you know, it’s a mixed bag. Most of the people who voted for him, I would say, are people who would support a peace process. They are not ideological. They are not invested in the settlement project. Most of them are the kind of constituency for peace that I would be looking for in Israel, so it could happen. I agree with you that as things seem now, it’s pretty bleak, and we are coming out of four pretty bleak years in which there was virtually no movement towards peace.
“[I]f Prime Minister Netanyahu… comes to the Israeli public and says, ‘My fellow citizens, the time has come, we’ve got to do it….,’ people will follow.” – Ori Nir
Again, Israelis turn on a dime, and we’ve seen it before. If there is a beginning of a process, if Prime Minister Netanyahu, who as a prime minister is still quite credible and quite popular in Israel, comes to the Israeli public and says, “My fellow citizens, the time has come, we’ve got to do it. It’s a necessity for the existence for the State of Israel, for its future as a Jewish and democratic state,” people will follow. People will follow.
Hilleary: He has talked that way in the past. Suddenly, it was a non-issue during his campaign – it wasn’t mentioned at all, and now he’s mentioning it again. He does waver.
Nir: He does waver. Prime Minister Netanyahu has shown and has even talked about the fact – not in so many words – that he is pretty much a status quo prime minister. He wants to maintain the status quo. He does not want to make concessions. He does not want this to happen under his watch.
“The majority – which includes many people in Netanyahu’s camp, people in Likud, pretty major players in Likud – do share the notion that a two-state solution is a necessity…” – Ori Nir
But, we’ve also seen that he can be pressured, and if there is enough internal pressure and enough external pressure – I know that is a word that people usually don’t like, many in the community that I come from, the American Jewish community, don’t like to put Israel and pressure in the same sentence – we’ve reached the stage where if there isn’t a kind of pressure that is needed, Israel will be at a serious risk of losing its character as a Jewish and democratic state.
Hilleary: But the right wing says that if they do go to a two state solution, Israel’s very nature will be threatened.
Nir: The extreme right wing in Israel says that. But they are still in the minority in Israel. The majority – which includes many people in Netanyahu’s camp, people in Likud, pretty major players in Likud – do share the notion that a two-state solution is a necessity, that without a separation, without Israel separating from the West Bank, without Israel getting rid of the occupation, which has been burdening it like an albatross on its shoulders for more than forty years, without that, Israel will end up with a de facto bi-national situation, which is already beginning to fester and will not be able to maintain its character as the Jewish and democratic state. And if that is the case, that means the death of the Zionist dream.
Hilleary: What you seem to be saying is that a two-state solution is necessary in order to make sure that there is not a large Arab population inside of Israel. Is that the motivating factor, then?
Nir: That is one of the motivating factors. That may even be the chief motivating factor. In other words, if Israel is to maintain its character as a Jewish state, it has to have a Jewish majority. If it decides to annex the West Bank and rule over two and a half million – I think now – Palestinians in the West Bank plus the Palestinian citizens of Israel who constitute a little more than 20 percent of the population of Israel, soon enough – and that will happen in probably less than a decade – there will be a Palestinian majority, an Arab majority [in Israel]. Even if it’s not a majority, even if it’s only 40, 45 percent or something like that, Israel cannot maintain its character as a Jewish state.
Hilleary: You hear this a lot. For example, I spent time in the United Arab Emirates, where – I don’t know what the figures are now, but at the time, ten years ago, the local Emirati population was only about 20 percent, with expatriates making up the other 80 percent, and there were fears that they would lose their Emirati identity. And yet the country remains distinctly Emirati. In the United States certainly we see great diversity – and, of course, there are those elements who don’t care for that – but is that threat to the Jewish national identity that real if you have, say, 50 percent Palestinians?
Nir: Yes. Yes, it is. It’s that real because we’re talking about – look: The two national narratives that collided in Palestine are of a zero-sum nature. In other words, the Palestinians strive for and would like to have the whole “enchilada,” the whole piece of land, all of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
Hilleary: Is that what the Palestinians are saying?
Nir: That is their dream. That is their narrative, yes. And the same goes for the Israelis. They view that piece of land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean – and some of them even broader than that. We’re talking the historic narratives here. Those are incompatible. They are two zero-sum narratives. However, what we have in the two-state solution is a win-win resolution for narratives that are of a zero-sum game. In other words, we can get out of that zero-sum mentality by adhering to a resolution that is of a win-win nature, and I would even say a “win-win-win” if we include the U.S. and international component in it. Everyone wins. Everyone has to, both Israelis and Palestinians, make some concessions, but at the end of the day, both Israelis and Palestinians come out of this winning: Israelis maintain their character as a Jewish and democratic state, Palestinians get statehood, which they don’t have now, independence, recognition, and everything that comes with it.
And there is a broad recognition on both sides that this is the way to go. This is the preferred solution for what in the past many have conceived as an irreconcilable conflict.
Hilleary: What burden lies on the shoulders of the U.S. president and the new U.S. secretary of state? What do they have to do – and can they do it – to get the two parties back not just to the negotiating table, but to reach some kind of agreement?
Nir: I think there are several things that should be guiding principles in this case. One of them is to make clear to both the parties that this is not anymore the U.S. offering its good offices, good services, to the parties, in order to help them along to something that is at their interest. I think that the first assertion that the United States has to make – and it has begun doing so under president George W. Bush and more so under President Obama but not in a strong and clear enough fashion – and that is that the U.S. has clear national security interests in Israeli-Palestinian peace: This is something that we – America – want, and you guys owe it to us, basically. I don’t think that the president would ever say it in so many words, but I think that’s a message that should be sent out there.
So far, what we’ve heard from administration after administration in the U.S. is this adage, you know, “We can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.” Well, this is not about who wants it more. This is about the United States, the only remaining superpower in the world, wanting something from allies – and I would say Israel is definitely an ally; the Palestinians are also allies, at least in terms of receiving a great deal of financial aid from the U.S. Both those allies should cooperate with the United States on something that is important to it.
That should be the first principle. And I think once that’s asserted out there, Israeli leaders who want to have their arm twisted a little bit could come to their constituencies – the same goes for the Palestinians – and those who don’t care that much about having their arms twisted would have to suffer a little bit of twisting but will cooperate, because if the U.S. says, “Do it,” at some point, you will have to do it. That’s one thing.
The other thing that I think will have to be done is something that we talked about earlier, and that is creating a relationship of trust both with the publics in Israel and Palestine, but also the Arab world. The U.S. has a lot of work to do there. President Obama started that four years ago when he went to Cairo and spoke directly with the Arab public, but the follow-up left quite a bit to be desired because there is a lot that can be done there.
Hilleary: Well, he also paid a lot politically for that speech, as you well know.
Nir: He did. But I think the interesting balance here is – if he comes into it showing that he really is serious and saying, “I am committed by the end of my term to see Israeli-Palestinian peace and I will invest political capital in it,” he will get much more cooperation from Arab leaders and much more credit, thus being able to approach the Arab public and start forging that relationship of trust, which would serve America quite well in the long run, I think. That’s another thing that I think is very important – the public diplomacy component of it.
A good team will have to be put together. At the moment, the only member of the team is Secretary of State Kerry. Kerry will have to put together a serious team, maybe an envoy. If you remember, President Obama nominated a good envoy at the beginning of his first term, and that somehow fizzled. There’s a lot of speculation, maybe wishful speculation, going on in the policy community that that kind of team would be a “dream team” headed by president [Bill] Clinton, who is very popular there.
Hilleary: Do you think he would take the job?
Nir: Who knows? I don’t think so. But I would love to see that happen. If there’s any person, any American leader who enjoys a great deal of popularity in the region, both among the Arabs and Palestinians and in Israel, it’s president Clinton. People love him. I don’t know if he’d take it on and I don’t know if President Obama would see it fit to authorize him with this kind of task, but I think that if that happens, it really raises the chances for success.
Hilleary: And finally: John Kerry. He believes he is the man that can do it, that he has the “right stuff” to do it. How is he viewed in the region?
Nir: I’m not sure about the Arab side, just because I just don’t know enough. On the Israeli scene, he’s not really a very recognizable face, he’s not a well-known commodity. People do remember him vaguely from his run for the White House [in 2008], but people are not really familiar with him. They don’t really know him well.
But that, potentially, is an asset, you know, coming in without any preconceived notions. No one suspects that he is in any way not a friend to Israel in any way, anti-Israel in any way, so he doesn’t come in with any deficit.
Hilleary: Or anti-Palestinian—
Nir: Or anti-Palestinian either. So I think he comes in with a clean slate.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.