How John Kerry won me over

The U.S. Secretary of State gets the concerns of Israel and the U.S. Jewish community.

By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie | Jan. 30, 2014 

Speaking at a lunch to 50 Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clergy that he had invited to Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a compelling, no-nonsense speech on the need for the leaders of Israel and Palestine to embrace his forthcoming peace initiative. Tough and persuasive, the Secretary made clear to all present what he expected from both Israelis and Palestinians, while also offering reassurances to each side; and, in my view, he addressed the concerns of Israel and of the American Jewish community with special care.

The purpose of the gathering, in part, was to advance the work of a newly created office in the State Department that is intended to engage religious partners in the peace effort. This might be seen as a questionable strategy. After all, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed as the nation-state of Israel disputing matters of land and water with the Palestinians, it is a problem that can be solved; land and resources, after all, can be divided. However, the minute that Israel is seen as “a dagger pushed into the heart of Islam” and Palestine as an intrusion by Muslims onto land promised by God to the Jews, then a peaceful settlement becomes impossible. The key, in other words, is not to bring religion into the conflict, but to keep it out, and to keep the struggle a national one rather than a holy war between two ancient faiths.

But while that is the theory, the problem, as Secretary Kerry has recognized, is that it is too late. Religious groups have already asserted themselves on both sides, and many, although not all, of those with extreme or rejectionist views are motivated by religious ideals—or, more precisely, the distortion of religious ideals. The State Department’s initiative is intended, therefore, to enlist the assistance of moderate religious voices in all three of the Abrahamic traditions in sending a message of conciliation and political compromise.

In calling on the religious leaders for help, Mr. Kerry did not resort to bromides or rely on platitudes. He discussed the elements of a two-state solution to which each side would be asked to commit, and expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached—first on a framework document and then on a plan to implement it. He made it clear that what he was proposing was intended to secure a lasting, secure, phased-in, and equitable peace that met the major requirements of both parties.

The alternatives to such a peace, he noted, are grim: The one-state solution does not exist, unilateral steps are doomed to failure, and the status quo is unsustainable. But his primary message was hope. He expressed confidence that the leadership existed on both sides to bring about a separation between Palestinians and Israelis on terms that would allow each to flourish and the region to thrive, and expressed his personal determination to see the process through.

Of particular interest to me, as a Jewish participant, was his focus on security for Israel. He stated repeatedly that the agreement would provide for Israel’s security; that security guarantees would be specific and detailed; that consequences for violations would be included; and that the United States would be involved in and stand behind the security arrangements. Clearly, Mr. Kerry had heard from all parties in Israel that security provisions are essential. Yes, the Palestinians are suffering; yes, the occupation must end; yes, some settlements must be withdrawn.

But even while all of this is true, absent tough measures to assure security for Israel’s citizens, there would be no majority in Israel for far-reaching concessions. Secretary Kerry, I saw, had gotten that message, internalized it, and committed to it.

I was struck, as well, by the Zionist tone of his appeal. Zionism is not complicated; it is about the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel.

This is language that Mr. Kerry used. He spoke about the need for Israel to be a democratic state and, not once but several times, about the importance of preserving Israel’s Jewish character. And it was fascinating to me that while some in Israel’s governing coalition speak frequently about a Jewish Israel, they never mention a democratic Israel; while the American Secretary of State, a religious Catholic, reminds us that Jewish and democratic are inextricably intertwined, and that Zionism cannot exist with one but not the other.

Mr. Kerry, of course, spoke of expectations and assurances for the Palestinian side as well. Israel’s leaders face difficult decisions; so too do Palestinian leaders. The agreement to be reached, he made very clear, will not be one-sided.

Will the region finally be blessed with peace? I can’t say for certain.

If this is to happen, Israelis will need to accept the reality of Palestinian suffering, and understand that without dignity for the Palestinians, there can be no dignity for Israel. And Palestinians will need to accept the reality of tiny Israel’s ever-threatened borders.

But this I will say: I left the meeting convinced that chances for peace are better now than they have been in a very long time; I left certain about my country’s commitment and concern for Israel; and I left deeply impressed with a Secretary of State who has worked, with unflagging devotion, to making Israeli-Palestinian peace a reality.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.


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