Israeli defense minister slams John Kerry for 'messianic' pursuit of peace deal

Moshe Yaalon peels back the curtain. 

Ariel Schalit/AP/File
An Israeli soldier holds up a Skylark I unmanned drone as part of a demonstration for Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, (c.), in an urban warfare army training facility, near Zeelim, southern Israel in July 2013. Yaalon was quoted Tuesday as deriding US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast peace efforts as naive and foolhardy.

There's something charming about the way US Secretary of State John Kerry has thrown himself into the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," that graveyard of diplomatic ambitions that his predecessor Hillary Clinton mostly dodged.

Secretary Kerry actually believes that, somehow (charm? force of will?) he's going to crack a case that has defied all efforts since the ink dried on the Oslo Accords.

But the fact remains that Israel's political leadership is not interested in the sorts of compromises that would be necessary for a Palestinian state. These include starting to contract, rather than expand, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and signal that under the right conditions it's willing to hand back territory.

The latest to signal this defiance is Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who lashed yesterday out at Kerry's mediation and his warnings that time is running out for Israel to make a lasting peace.

"Secretary of State John Kerry – who has come to us determined and is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling – cannot teach me a single thing about the conflict with the Palestinians," Mr. Yaalon was quoted as saying in the country's largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. The paper said the Likud member's comments were made in private. He was also reported to have said that "the only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone."

This is a fairly mainstream position within Israel's pro-settlement right, which views the Palestinians as an implacable security threat to Israel, expanded settlements into the West Bank as positive for security, and US mediation as soft-headed. 

At the end of last month, cabinet ministers, led by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, voted in favor of a non-binding resolution urging Israel to annex the west side of the Jordan River Valley. Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, who backs annexation, said the vote sent "a clear statement by the government that the towns in the Jordan Valley are a strategic and security asset of the State of Israel that must stay in our hands." Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, also from Likud, said "there is no separation between settlement and security, and the Jordan Valley is a consensus among Israeli citizens."

These claims are absolute killers of any two-state peace process. So to a certain extent, Kerry is tilting at windmills, though it must be said that his efforts are getting some Netanyahu supporters hot under the collar, which brings us back to the defense minister's outburst. 

What's interesting about Yaalon's rage at Kerry is what prompted it: An entirely reasonable line taken by the US secretary of state.

As Haaretz summarizes:

In recent months, Kerry has stressed several times the urgent need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US secretary of state also warned that demographic changes could mean that unless a Palestinian state is established, Israel would no longer be able to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Kerry has also repeatedly warned that failure of the peace talks could lead to a third intifada and to a wave of boycotts against Israel.

Based on current trends, the ethnic-Arab population of Israel proper is expected to grow faster than the Jewish one. When the West Bank is taken into account, Jews are already in a minority in historic Palestine. This is an uncomfortable truth for Israel: the longer that Israel frames a two-state solution as a fantasy, not a reality, the closer Israel gets to choosing either apartheid and the abandonment of democracy or the demise of the Jewish state itself. It may annoy Yaalon to be reminded of this, but it doesn't make it any less true. 

As for a third Palestinian uprising, or intifada, it's hardly controversial to suggest that the festering wounds of occupation and settlement expansion increase the risk of Palestinian political violence.

Yaalon's remarks have peeled back the curtain on official Israel thinking about Kerry's efforts at peace-making and the willingness of its political establishment to meet him halfway. Men like Yaalon, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, don't feel they have to meet anyone, anywhere.

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