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White House Publicly Breaking with Israel on … Palestine

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By David Harris-Gershon (@David_EHG)

Much has been written in the past week on Israel’s fiery condemnation of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and several world powers, including the United States. Notably, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s vociferous opposition to talks championed by John Kerry.

Many have focused upon the moment when Netanyahu claimed that Iran was getting “the deal of the century” from America, to which Kerry publicly and testily countered that “the time to oppose [a deal with Iran] is when you see what it is, not to oppose the effort to find out what is possible.

However, while this rift over Iran between Israel and the Obama administration caught headlines, a significant, and possibly historic, break between Israel and the U.S. over Middle East peace was occurring as well. On Thursday, in a rare joint interview on both Israeli and Palestinian television, Kerry made clear in ways this administration has never done just how frustrated Washington is with Israel’s settlement expansion and overall investment in peace:

How, if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace, and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in a place that will eventually be Palestine? So it sends a message that perhaps you’re not really serious.

In the interview’s wake, Larry Derfner at +972 Magazine wrote:

I don’t know of a precedent for a U.S. secretary of state, or a president, publicly attacking Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians like Kerry did – and in front of not only the Israeli public, but the Palestinian public as well.

And when Netanyahu responded to Kerry’s words by saying, “Israel won’t give in to such intimidation tactics,” Derfner continued:

This is not the way Americans and Israelis ordinarily talk to each other in public. This is not a tiff. This is not one of the natural ups and downs in the unshakable relationship bla bla bla. This is a break between the U.S. and Israel on the peace process, caused by the secretary of state’s decision to finally speak Washington’s mind out loud.

Now, Derfner may be overstating the significance of Kerry’s words. For after all, they are just words, not actions. However, with the United States announcing that it would be offering a peace proposal in January, and with Kerry boldly exposing Washington’s views before both the Israeli and Palestinian public, perhaps there is reason to suspect that things are turning. Perhaps the U.S. is finally breaking from Israel on the peace process, on its continued settlement expansions, on its commitment to peace.

Today, it was reported that Israel issued plans for the largest settlement expansion in a decade – 20,000 units. Immediately, the State Department demanded, publicly, that Israel explain its decision. Even more, the U.S. said that it “does not recognize the legitimacy of settlements.”

[Update: after U.S. and Palestinian pressure, Netanyahu has cancelled the 20,000 settlement plans.]

There is a shift occurring in Washington, and President Obama is allowing Kerry to let that shift be known to the world. Whether or not, come January, this shift will translate into increased pressure from Washington remains to be seen. However, what is happening is rare. And for a status quo which needs to end, rare words from Washington are exactly what’s needed. Even more so, actions to follow them.

David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld.

Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

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