The Strange Moral Calculus of John Kerry

SECRETARY of State John Kerry was in Israel for the tenth time since taking office last February. His mission was described as “pushing for the sides to agree on guidelines for what the final deal would look like.”

O n Wednesday the Israeli daily Maariv reported (summarized in English here) that the Israeli defense establishment

totally reject[s] the American proposal for security arrangements in the Jordan Valley…. The American proposal presented to Israel was based on a limited Israeli presence at the border crossings along the Jordan River for a limited number of years, together with the massive use of technological means such as satellites and drones that would replace the army’s presence on the ground.

The position of the security services, as agreed upon recently by the Defense Minister, is that no replacement for the IDF will protect Israel’s security interests, and that even the most advanced technological means do not offer a serious alternative.

Thursday found Secretary of State John Kerry in Israel for the tenth time since taking office last February. His mission was described as “pushing for the sides to agree on guidelines for what the final deal would look like.”

Meanwhile it was reported again that the Palestinian side—including Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and all his negotiators and officials—totally rejects any compromise, even a diluted, temporary Israeli military presence, in the Jordan Valley, calling it “Palestinian” even though it has never been under Palestinian rule and has been an Israeli territory since 1967.

Considering that other “core issues” like Jerusalem, “refugees,” and the borders of a putative Palestinian state are no less difficult, it is, as usual, perplexing to see Kerry continuing to invest American resources and prestige in pursuit of “guidelines” for a “final deal.”

But the show has to go on, and on Tuesday a third batch of twenty-six convicted Palestinian terrorist murders were freed; the release of four such groups was, after all, Abbas’s condition for entering the talks at all.

As Elliott Abrams noted in a perceptive blog post:

the prisoner releases are not CBMs [confidence-building measures]; they are CDMs, confidence-destroying measures. With some American pressure, Prime Minister Netanyahu has released a third tranche of long-serving security prisoners—murderers, to be exact.

The first thing this does is diminish confidence in the United States. After all, we never do this; we never release murderers or terrorists from our prisons for political reasons. That we expect Israel to do so teaches Israelis that we will ask Israel to take risks we would not take, and do not fully understand the security situation they face.

Abrams goes on to quote from a report in The Telegraph:

scenes of…Abbas…kissing and hugging each prisoner after their release provoked revulsion in Israel, with critics complaining that most of the inmates had been convicted of murdering Israelis. “Each one of us sees this and we ask ourselves, can we make peace with these people, who welcome murderers with flowers as if they were heroes,” Silvan Shalom, the Israeli regional development minister, told Israel Radio.

The released prisoners included—just a few out of the twenty-six:

Damouni Saad Mohammed Ahmed will be released to the Gaza Strip this week more than 20 years after he was convicted of taking part in the brutal lynching of IDF reservist Amnon Pomerantz, who took a wrong turn into a refugee camp in the coastal territory in 1990—he was beaten to death before his car was set alight by firebombs.

Yosef Mahmad Haza Haza was only 17 when he and a friend murdered hikers Leah Elmakayis and Yossi Eliyahu at a forest on the Gilboa mountain range in 1985….

Fatah member Abu-Dahila Hasan Atik Sharif will be released to the West Bank 21 years after his arrest for the murder of Avi Osher, who employed him for 15 years at his Jordan Valley farm before Sharif beat and stabbed him to death.

The list includes Amer Massoud Issa Rajib, one of those convicted in the murder of Ian Feinberg, who was hacked and shot to death in April 1993 in the Gaza Strip, where he had been working on economic revitalization plans for the area.

Netanyahu has followed these prisoner releases with announcements of Israeli building plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Although these moves have been criticized for seeming to create an equivalency between freeing murderers and building homes, they have some psychological value for Israelis in allaying feelings of helplessness and humiliation.

This time, though, Netanyahu is delaying the announcement—until after Kerry’s visit. The aim is not to “embarrass” him—as Vice-President Joe Biden was grievously embarrassed during a March 2010 visit to Israel. What then provoked a major contretemps with the Obama administration was an announcement of plans to build in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.

Kerry, though, evidently feels no embarrassment at President Abbas’s kissing and hugging murderers. True, they were released with Kerry’s full approval.

Abrams’s point about “confidence-destroying measures” can be taken further. The U.S. wants Israel to be pliant like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. But trying to put the Jordan Valley up for grabs, even though a four-and-a-half-decade consensus of Israeli military leaders views it as indispensable to Israel’s security, is not the way to achieve that.

Nor is signaling that Israeli lives don’t count for much, and taking Israeli lives isn’t much of a crime.

Nor is treating parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949-1967, or “West Bank settlements” that we’re told will remain part of Israel anyway, as Jew-free zones.

Though a nationalistic, distrustful Israel with a sense of beleaguerment may not be what John Kerry wants, it’s what he’s increasingly promoting. How much better it would be to treat Israel as an ally.

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