With the country in the middle of an essentially unprecedented political crisis, there’s a kind of eerie normalcy to the speech on Israel and Palestine that John Kerry delivered Wednesday afternoon. The remarks themselves were unusually harsh, as was the United Nations resolution on Israeli settlements last week that the administration allowed through. But US presidents and secretaries of state have been talking about the issue for literally decades without much changing.
Nothing seems in the offing here, either. The Obama administration is not threatening to cut off financial aid or other forms of assistance to Israel if Benjamin Netanyahu’s government doesn’t comply with its requests. There are no peace talks underway. The UN isn't considering any actual sanctions on Israel. And, of course, the Obama administration only has three or four weeks left in office, so even if it did have some exciting new policy initiative to announce, there would be no chance of the incoming Trump administration carrying it out.
It’s a rhetorical hand grenade, but a policymaking dud. And while I have some thoughts about the substance of the speech, I’m mostly left wondering ... why?
Why at a time when the country urgently needs effective political opposition to an alarming new regime that is entering office with vast power but little democratic legitimacy did the Obama administration choose to lash out ineffectually in a way that unites his successor’s coalition while dividing his own party? What does Obama hope this will accomplish? And why pick a fight he's sure to lose?
Israel unites Republicans and divides Democrats
Even in a time of polarized parties, life is simply too complicated for two political groups to have unanimity of opinion on all topics.
Israel, for example, is an issue on which Democrats are fairly badly divided. Most Democrats — broadly in line with Obama — have a liberal-ish view on Israel that emphasizes support for a two-state solution, a democratic version of Zionism, and support of Israel’s hard security needs but not its expansive claims for territory. Most Democrats also simply don’t see this as a particularly pressing issue.
But there is a substantial minority of Democrats — including a number of important elected leaders — who line up with conservatives in steadfastly supporting an aggressive vision of Israeli nationalism. Meanwhile, on a grassroots level many rank-and-file liberals thirst for a more critical line on the conflict than Obama or other party leaders have been willing to take. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer condemned the UN resolution and criticized Obama for allowing it through. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, pushed (unsuccessfully) to change the Democratic Party platform to condemn Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
On the Republican side, by contrast, support for Israel generally and the Netanyahu government specifically is now an essentially unanimous position. The growth of Christian Zionism, the small but noticeable shift of Orthodox Jews into the GOP, the increasing influence of Islamophobia on grassroots conservative politics, the Persian Gulf states’ growing rapprochement with Israel over shared fear of Iran, and the near extinction of left-wing politics in Israel all serve to make an uncomplicated pro-Israel stance a comfortable position for Republicans of all stripes.
This makes Israel politically treacherous ground for basically any Democrat, no matter where he or she comes down on the issue. And that, in turn, helps explain why Obama’s more substantive peacemaking efforts — like the 2009 drive for a settlement freeze — never amounted to very much. Even before the GOP took the House in 2010, there was never a congressional majority for Obama’s approach to Israel. Forget winning over Republicans; plenty of Obama’s own party hasn’t been with him.
Neocons have been the most Trump-skeptical Republicans
This is particularly important, because as Democrats have been flinging everything they can think of against Trump’s nascent administration, the only thing that’s really gotten traction with congressional Republicans is foreign policy issues.
From the beginning of Trump’s campaign, “neoconservative” foreign policy hawks have been the most Trump-skeptical faction of the Republican Party, pointing to his opposition to the Iraq War (which they supported), warm words for Arab strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (who has crushed democratic opposition in his country), and willingness to effectively cede much of Eastern Europe to Vladimir Putin (whom they loathe).
And neocons are the one faction that Trump never really bothered to kowtow to at any point, pushing ahead with wildly heterodox foreign policy ideas even while aligning his approach on taxes, regulation, abortion, guns, and other hot-button issues with mainstream conservative viewpoints.
But if foreign policy is the exception to Trump’s ideological orthodoxy, Israel is the exception within the exception.
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
These tweets are music to the ears of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and other hawkish Republicans who’ve been skeptical of Trump’s approach to foreign policy and, in particular, his closeness to Vladimir Putin. As my colleague Jeff Stein has written, talking about Trump’s Russophilia isn’t necessarily a huge win with public opinion, but in terms of congressional politics, this — not corruption, not fiscal policy, not racism — is the issue on which some Republicans have been willing to break with the president-elect and call for hearings and investigations.
Shifting the domestic debate about foreign policy off Russia and onto Israel brings those Republicans back in line with Trump.
The UN has long shown its anti-Israel bias & the US govt has admirably kept the UN out in negotiations. That tradition should continue.— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) December 22, 2016
Meanwhile, it sets Obama and much of the Democratic base against Schumer who, as incoming minority leader in the Senate, is going to be the point person in opposing Donald Trump. Schumer is one of Israel’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill, and the veteran New York lawmaker was one of the most prominent Democrats to vote against Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran.
It’s not too late to save America
There is value in simply speaking truth, and that is what Secretary Kerry saw himself as doing today. But as someone who is very sympathetic to the Obama/Kerry view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who hews to the traditional liberal Zionist hope of a two-state solution, it’s worth being real: This is not going to happen.
I no longer follow this issue closely enough to have a strong opinion on whether it’s too late for a two-state solution today, became too late five years ago, or will become too late over the next five years. But John Kerry is not going to broker a two-state solution in the next three weeks. The Israeli government is not going to seek one on its own. And the Donald Trump administration is not going to try to make it seek one. This is all a total nonstarter.
The fight for the United States of America, by contrast, is still very much alive.
Trump is alarming, and the level of support he is receiving from Republican Party elected officials is also alarming. But he’s also the most unpopular president-elect of all time. And American presidents are still subject to extreme powerful checking-and-balancing forces in Congress. If Democrats can hang together and maintain focus on issues that unite their caucus and public opinion while driving wedges between Trump and his bastions of congressional support, he can be checked and ultimately beaten. But Trump’s ability to set the agenda and distract from points of weakness via his Twitter feed make this hard to pull off.
The last thing the country needs is for elder statesmen in the opposition party like Obama and Kerry to contribute to the noise and distraction — all in pursuit of an agenda that can’t possibly succeed.