Kerry: Peace is close; Ya'alon and Lieberman: No it isn't
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Friday optimistic about current peace negotiations • Defense Minister Ya'alon: There is no Palestinian partner for peace • Foreign Minister Lieberman: There's zero trust between Israel and the Palestinians.
Shlomo Cesana, Daniel Siryoti and Yoni Hirsch
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem during last week's visit
Photo credit: Haim Tzach/GPO
Despite persistent local pessimism surrounding the peace negotiations, at the end of his visit in Israel and Ramallah on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, "I believe we are closer than we have been in years to bringing about the peace and prosperity and the security that all of the people of this region deserve and yearn for."
Speaking to reporters who accompanied him on the trip, Kerry added that he would not have "wasted so much time" -- his own, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' -- if he did not believe progress could be made. "Despite the fact that we are discussing really difficult, complicated issues, I am encouraged by the continued commitment of both leaders to the pursuit of peace, and they both underscored their commitment to continue to work through these difficult issues in the days ahead," he said.
According to Kerry, the U.S. will "only support a final status agreement that makes both Israel and the Palestinians safer than they are today." That, he explained, is why U.S. President Barack Obama appointed retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen with his team of 160 analysts, including defense and intelligence experts, to deal with any security challenges that Israel may face with the future establishment of a Palestinian state in the region.
Dampening Kerry's optimism however, Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon on Saturday at a conference in Tel Aviv that Israel did not have a Palestinian partner for peace.
Israel is "in a world surrounded by a raging storm; the Middle East is boiling," Ya'alon said.
"The West's mistake is democracy by election. Whoever thinks that that's the method is simply mistaken. If one doesn't value life -- and the societies around us sanctify death -- how could we possible talk with that person about human rights? Women's rights? This is a long process. It starts with education, not elections," Ya'alon said, speaking at the Globes Israel Business Conference.
"The other side doesn't have, there's never been since the dawn of Zionism, a leadership willing to recognize us as the state for the Jewish people. We don't want to rule over the Palestinians. We won't talk about a millimeter if we don't see a partner who recognizes us as the Jewish state, who relinquishes the right of return and ends such demands. When will we be convinced that we have someone to speak with? I'll have to look at their textbooks. When they stop educating [their children] to strap on explosive belts, when Tel Aviv appears on the map, then we'll have something to talk about. Security starts with education," said Ya'alon.
Pouring even more cold water on Kerry's optimism over the weekend was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that there was no real progress in the U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians. "There's zero trust between Israel and the Palestinians," Lieberman said, adding that negotiations with the Palestinians must start "not from security and not from refugees, but from some simple thing I call trust, confidence, credibility."
"I don't believe that it's possible in the next year, this year, to achieve comprehensive solution, to achieve some breakthrough," he said in an interview at the Saban Forum Friday with The Washington Post.
"Trust between the two sides is about zero," Lieberman stated, adding that "Without trust and credibility [a deal is] mission impossible."
Nonetheless, Lieberman said he valued Kerry's efforts and that he accepts the plan for a two-state solution outlined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a speech at Bar-Ilan University.
"Our direction on the Palestinians is wrong; we need to take some time out for a policy review. My feeling is that there is a lot of desire [to make peace] but I'm not sure that it is possible. I don't see any occupation. And to speak about occupation is not to understand the history of this region, and the facts. Palestinian Authority and Palestinian state didn't exist before 1967. From 1948 to 1967 what we call today the Palestinian Authority was divided between two countries, it was under full Arab control. Judea and Samaria was part of Jordan and Sinai Peninsula was part of Egypt. And I don't remember that from 1948 to 1967 they established any Palestinian state. Today to speak about occupation is a misunderstanding of the history of this region. I don't recall a Palestinian state existing anytime in history. We are really ready to share this small land, and all of Israel today is 21,000 square kilometers, and we are ready to share with our neighbors and to sacrifice. I think only Israel has made real steps to establish peace in this region. We gave up Sinai, we gave up Gaza Strip, we gave up half of Judea and Samaria, and I think that we've proved our real desire to achieve peace. To speak about occupation is really a prejudiced, biased approach to this problem. It's not a problem of territory. I will never accept the argument that this is the obstacle to peace," Lieberman said.
The problem, the foreign minister explained, is that he doesn't "see a chance to achieve a comprehensive agreement. ... We are at a dead end." Lieberman added that he does not think the two sides are close to reaching even an interim deal.
"We had Ehud Olmert in Annapolis, Ehud Barak in Camp David, and even Benjamin Netanyahu at Wye Plantation take great risks [for peace with the Palestinians.] But despite all these efforts, and of course all the efforts of the American side, we are still in deadlock.
"The other mistake is that up until today we signed agreements only with the rulers and not with the peoples. I think that we must achieve real, comprehensive solution with the Palestinians, not with their rulers," Lieberman said.
"To say that settlements are an obstacle to peace is a real misunderstanding, a misrepresentation."
Opposition Leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), who met with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Friday, told her that the Labor party will fully support progress in the peace talks.
"Netanyahu has a majority in the Knesset to move forward with the diplomatic process," he said. "It is in Israel's best interest to separate from the Palestinians, and we, despite the fact that we are in the opposition, will support the government if Netanyahu will do the right thing and advance the peace process."
Herzog added: "I believe the Israeli public will support an agreement with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the government's actions in recent years make people in the world doubt this. I intend on changing this."
Herzog attacked Lieberman's statements, saying that the foreign minister should undergo a "reality check," adding that his stance may threaten the Jewish majority in Israel.
When asked about the Iranian nuclear threat, Kerry maintained the official American stance, saying that the interim deal signed in Geneva is good for Israel and will provide security until a final agreement is reached. "Israel and the United States are absolutely in sync, not an ounce of daylight between us, with respect to the need to make sure that Iran cannot achieve a nuclear weapon, will not in the future be able to achieve it and certainly cannot move towards it without the United States of America and Israel knowing that, and therefore being able to take steps to deal with that," he said.
"On this visit, I spent most of the time focused on Israel's security concerns because for years and years and years, it has been clear to me from every prime minister that unless a prime minister can look the people of Israel in the eye and make it clear to them that he has spoken for Israel's security to a certainty, you cannot make peace. It is a prerequisite," Kerry told the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum on Saturday.
"Every time I visit, I can feel in my gut, and I see it as well as hear it firsthand, just how vulnerable Israel can be and just how important it is for the United States' commitment to Israel's security to remain ironclad," he said, adding that "President Obama and I ... remain deeply committed -- indeed, determined -- to ensuring Israel has the ability to defend itself, by itself."
Kerry met with Finance Minister Yair Lapid on Friday to discuss the peace talks. Lapid told Kerry that "despite the disagreements and discord still ahead, a peace agreement is ultimately in the interest of both sides."
Reports from Ramallah indicate disappointment with Kerry's stance during the visit. An official from Abbas's office told Israel Hayom that "President Abbas rejected the majority of clauses in the peace plan regarding security on the borders of a Palestinian state that Secretary Kerry presented." Arab media reports say that officials close to Abbas believe the Palestinians will not be prepared to reach security arrangements until policy issues are resolved.
Officials from Ramallah feel that the current plan exclusively addresses Israeli interests and security concerns along future borders and favors an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and other areas to the west.
London-based newspaper Al-Hayat quoted Palestinian officials claiming that the U.S. is trying to ease Israeli outrage over the Iranian nuclear deal at the expense of the Palestinians.