Praise for Kerry’s Israel Speech in Arab World, but Shrugs, Too

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Secretary of State John Kerry’s harsh words for Israel echoed across the Arab world on Thursday, earning praise from some governments long frustrated with American support for the Jewish state while eliciting shrugs from others who believe the tough talk was too little, too late.

Underlying those reactions, analysts said, was the knowledge that the Palestinian issue does not resonate as strongly among Arabs as it used to, and that Mr. Kerry’s proposals will almost surely have no impact on the administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has not expressed even token support for the idea of a Palestinian state.

Nasser S. Judeh, the foreign minister of Jordan, said Mr. Kerry, in his speech on Wednesday, had offered an “impartial” and “well laid out” vision for a peace settlement. “The world agrees with that,” he wrote on Twitter.

Officials of Arab governments that have never recognized Israel and regularly criticize its treatment of the Palestinians also praised the speech, including those of Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But some regional observers saw it as little more than a rhetorical exercise.

“At the last five minutes of the hour, apparently Kerry and Obama are showing some courage to stand up to Israel, but it is coming too late in the game,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in the United Arab Emirates. “It is after the fact. They should have shown this amount of political courage four years ago, if not eight years ago.”

In his speech, Mr. Kerry accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel of standing in the way of peace in the Middle East and defended the Obama administration’s decision to allow a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction.

Many in the Middle East are keenly aware that the current American administration’s days are waning, and that Mr. Trump will most likely take a very different approach.

“We have seen pro-Israeli presidents all along, and Israel First was the standard policy of the United States of America over the last 50-plus years,” Mr. Abdulla said. “But Trump is going much further than that. It seems he is even more Zionist than the Zionists.”

Sympathy for the Palestinians has historically been among the few issues that united Arabs across political and sectarian lines, and fiery speeches condemning Israel have long been a reliable way for Arab leaders to fire up their people.

But the Palestinian issue is no longer as central as it once was in the wider Arab consciousness. While most Arab states remain unlikely to recognize Israel any time soon, the Arab Spring uprisings and the violence that followed in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya have left heads of state and their populations more focused on domestic concerns. And the rising influence of Iran has created new regional worries for Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, which now share a strategic interest with Israel in checking Iranian power.

“Arab countries have sociopolitical problems that trump the Palestinian cause,” said Ziad A. Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, noting that few Arab governments have done much for the Palestinians over the last decade. Now, he said, “a lot of Arab nations have interests with Israel, and it is part of their national security equation.”

“They have realized that Israel is a fact that they have to live with,” he said.

The region’s population has also grown younger, and younger Arabs feel less loyalty to the Palestinians than their elders, said Bassel Salloukh, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

“There are generations of Arabs who have no idea what Palestine symbolizes and what the issue means,” he said, “and the fratricide among the Palestinians has also undermined the Palestinian cause.”

But one issue that could revive the old passions, he said, is Jerusalem, which is claimed not only by the Arabs but by the wider Muslim community because of its holy sites.

Mr. Trump has vowed to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a departure from decades of American policy that could have widespread international ramifications.

“This is no longer an Arab issue, this a Pan-Islamic issue,” Mr. Salloukh said. “It would be throwing oil on the fire and it would give credence to the anti-American discourse.”

Saudi Arabia, a staunch American ally that has also long supported the Palestinians, welcomed Mr. Kerry’s framework, saying it “forms an appropriate basis for reaching a final solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to an unnamed Foreign Ministry official quoted by the Saudi state news agency.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said that Mr. Kerry’s proposals were “mostly consistent with the international consensus and the Egyptian vision.”

“But in the end, what is important is the will to implement those principles eventually,” Mr. Abu Zeid said.

Some in the region questioned why Mr. Kerry had waited until his last few weeks in office to articulate criticisms that many in the region have been making for years.

“It is difficult to believe that Kerry came to these conclusions this week, since he has been around for four years and the Obama administration has been around for eight,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “One wonders what is the point here.”

He said that if Mr. Obama had really wanted to advance the two-state solution before Mr. Trump entered the White House, he could have taken more concrete action, like officially recognizing a Palestinian state.

“Instead, this will be another forgotten speech and Trump will very seriously consider moving the embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

While Mr. Kerry’s speech was seen by many in Washington and Israel as harsh, Mr. Rabbani argued that it was still a mild response to Mr. Netanyahu’s combative actions toward the Obama administration over the last eight years.

“If I were Netanyahu and the only price I had to pay for all my efforts to undo the Iran deal and the two-state settlement was a single abstention by the U.S. at the Security Council and a speech by Kerry, I’d be a very happy man,” he said.

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