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Kerry’s joint interview with Israeli and Palestinian reporters: A step forward or a step in the wrong direction?

12/11/2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry held a joint interview with Channel 2′s Udi Segal and Palestine TV’s Maher Shalabi last week. It was very refreshing to watch a joint interview as it was a nice way for the Americans to show that they in fact saying the same things to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, rather than speaking in different languages and with different motives to each. But instead of feeling that we’re on the same ground, Secretary Kerry insulted the Israeli audience and made them think that he was saying something different than he had really believed all along.

Currently it is a very delicate time of silent negotiations between the two parties where most of the public – on both sides – does not know what is really happening behind closed doors, and the vast majority – also on both sides – is feeling pessimistic as far as the chances are that these negotiations will lead to some sort of peace agreement. In fact, the public and its leadership are not only pessimistic but are already thinking about the “day after” the negotiations fail and each side will have to explain that it was the other’s fault. Extremists from both sides are already planning to use this expected failure and despair for their own political benefits, to claim that there is no partner for peace and that each side should just continue with their aspirations without taking into account the other.

In the middle of this stands the US as a moderator and facilitator of the negotiations. The US is standing there quite alone, the EU has a different approach to the situation and a potential resolution, as do other actors such as Russia and the UN. But the US is not a neutral player or an objective moderator, in a poll by An-Najah National University earlier this month

“10.7% of respondents considered the US an honest arbitrator between the two sides of conflict. 90.1% of respondents looked at US policy towards the Palestinian issue as generally biased towards the Israeli side”

So, giving this perception the US has to make up for this in a new tone that reflects the Palestinian side. This is diplomacy and it’s acceptable, but why do it in a joint interview? Why insult and offend the Israelis when it could have been easily avoided?

The format of the interview was that each reporter asked a few questions of interest for ‘his’ audience – the questions were very different and it reflected nicely on the way that reality is perceived on each side. The Israeli reporter asked if the picture of Abbas hugging the newly released prisoners is not something that should concern the Israelis. Kerry was very diplomatic in most of his answers at the beginning of the interview, he even got out of an extremely difficult question on settlement building in exchange for the release of prisoners. But he went on:

“The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos. Does Israel want a third intifada?…I believe that if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign for the de-legitimization of Israel that has been taking place on an international basis…If we do not resolve the question of settlements, and who lives where and what rights they have; if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually in the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if you cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to non-violence, we may wind up with a leadership that is committed to violence.”

Whilst saying this he looked at the Israeli reporter in a threatening way, as if he was angry with those ‘stubborn Israelis’. This segment and tone would have been justifiable if Kerry had also balanced this being so honest with the Palestinians as well. By not doing so he is leaving the blame for the failure of the negotiations on the Israeli side alone. Is this the right message to send to the audience on both sides? That the Israelis are stubborn and the Palestinians are right? Or has Kerry gone too far with his attempt not to be perceived as biased?

Unfortunately for Kerry this was not the only problem, most of the Israeli audience, including ministers and Knesset members inferred that Kerry has now tacitly given a green light for Palestinian terrorists to wage a third Intifada against Israel. Palestinian extremists and the general public are already talking about one, but now the US is saying that they have justification because of Israel’s intransigence. Kerry should find a way to take his words back or he’ll be blamed of supporting the wrong side of the power balance and giving weapons to the extremists rather than the peace camp.