John Kerry’s Middle East plan mirrors Bill Clinton’s futile end-of-term attempt

It is a reflection of the paralysis and steady demise of the peace process over the ensuing 16 years that Kerrys principles closely resemble Clintons parameters

John Kerry is not the first US statesman to lay out a Middle East peace plan just as he is about to leave office.

In December 2000, Bill Clinton presented a set of parameters for a two-state solution, covering the same set of daunting issues: Jerusalem, the right of return (or not) of Palestinian refugees, territorial exchange on the basis of the 1967 ceasefire line and Israeli security.

It is a reflection of the paralysis and steady demise of the peace process over the ensuing 16 years that Kerrys principles closely resemble Clintons parameters.

In his hour-plus speech Wednesday, Kerry went further than any previous secretary of state in spelling out the self-destructive nature of Benjamin Netanyahus policyfor Israels long-term security. He used unusually blunt language to describe the nature of the present Israeli government and referred to the Arab perception of the impact of Israels creation on Palestinian lives, the nakba the catastrophe.

The most significant differences between Kerrys message and Clintons are that Israel is explicitly accepted by its neighbours as a Jewish state in Kerrys solution, and Jerusalem is to be shared but not divided.

But the most important difference is the context in which the two frameworks are being proposed. At Camp David in July 2000 Clinton had come closer than any US president to brokering a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and a deal between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat was still possible five months later. The two sides came close again at the Taba summit in January 2001.

By striking contrast, Kerry made his speech at a time when a two-state solution has been corroded into an almost abstract concept and is no longer a shared destination for both parties. As the secretary of the state noted, Netanyahu continues to pay lip service to two states, but sits at the head of a government that Kerry described as the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements, with an aggressive settlement-building approach that leads in the other direction to a one-state solution.

According to the New York Times, Kerry had wanted to deliver a speech like this some two years ago but was blocked by the White House, which saw little value in enraging Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister had already shown himself willing and capable of inflicting political damage on Obama and the Democrats on their home ground.

Netanyahu was indeed enraged by the speech his office was quick to dismiss it as biased against Israel but he was clearly not worried. He has his eye on the near horizon.

As Kerry was preparing to make the speech, the administrations Middle East policy was trolled on Twitter by the next president.

We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect, Donald Trump tweeted. They used to have a great friend in the US, but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (UN)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!

The president-elects message to the Israeli government was clear: ignore Kerrys words. The next US administration will lift any pressure over settlements. The designated US ambassador, David Friedman, Trumps bankruptcy lawyer, is vowing to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has a record of funding settlements and advocates the annexation of parts of the West Bank, aligning himself with the far right elements in the Netanyahu cabinet.

Given these circumstances, the Kerry speech raises questions about what purpose it serves 23 days before he leaves his job, other than a cri de coeur at the end of long and abortive effort to make an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and a desire perhaps to put his own imprimatur on a formal blueprint for peace.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department official, argued the speech had a value beyond such vain motives in setting down a marker ahead of Trumps arrival in office.

Obviously it would have been better to give this speech two or three years ago, said Goldenberg, now director of the middle east security programme at the Centre for a New American Security. But it is still important to get those principles out there for future negotiators to rally around.

In other words, the speech is a tidal marker before the coming of the Trump deluge, in the hope it will still have relevance if and when the flood waters recede.

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