Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave a passionately pro-Israel speech this past weekend at the Saban Forum in Washington. On matters concerning Israel’s security, its international legitimacy and its demographic future, he showed himself to be a true friend. There are people in Israel -- there were people at the Willard Hotel, where Kerry gave the speech, in fact -- who did not consider this speech pro-Israel, but they are deluding themselves.

Kerry proved a couple of things. First, while he is more than capable of loose-cannoning his way across the Middle East, and while he is on occasion alarmingly optimistic about a range of issues that don't warrant optimism, he is also committed, in a bone-deep way, to Israel’s well-being. He is an exemplar of a slowly vanishing type of Democratic Party leader, someone with great, and uncomplicated, affection for the promise of Zionism.

Second, while it may be true that Kerry is seeking a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Israel-Palestine conciliation, he's also working for something that most Jews, in Israel and around the world, desperately want -- a secure Israel with internationally recognized borders that becomes an honored member of the family of nations, rather than a target of never-ending opprobrium.

The setting for this speech, the forum's keynote address, was extraordinary, and not only because President Barack Obama had appeared at the forum earlier in the day as a kind of inadvertent warm-up act. (In the interest of disclosure, I moderated a panel on the Iranian nuclear controversy, not for pay, but because I was looking to give myself a headache.) Five Israeli cabinet ministers were in Kerry’s audience -- including the foreign minister, the dyspeptic revanchist Avigdor Lieberman (who tried to win over the audience the previous night, without much success) -- along with many senior figures in the Israeli security establishment. Also in attendance were a number of Israel’s most prominent overseas supporters, first and foremost Haim Saban himself. Saban is the Israeli-American billionaire behind the Saban Center (which is part of the Brookings Institution), who has become perhaps the central figure trying to bridge the various divides between Israel and the U.S.

Much of Kerry’s speech was taken up with a by-now traditional, and not overly persuasive, defense of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran. I’ll deal with that later (not that I haven’t dealt with it over and over again). But I was struck by his remarks on the peace process. Kerry appeared confident about the chance for at least preliminary success in the ongoing talks. (Speculation at the conference was that he had some sort of agreement in his pocket already that he couldn’t share.) He also pulled back the curtain a bit on a brilliant jiu-jitsu move of his devising.

Right-wing Israeli politicians consistently argue that pulling out of the West Bank will endanger Israel’s security (just as pulling out of Gaza hurt its security in some important ways). Kerry is confronting this fear head on by overseeing an assessment led by retired Marine Corps General John Allen -- the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- of Israeli security requirements; the hope is to devise a system that will make the West Bank’s border with Jordan “as strong as any in the world.” If Kerry manages to neutralize the Israeli government’s arguments against a West Bank pullback by building, with Israel, an impregnable security system, he'll make real inroads with pro-compromise, but skeptical, Israelis.

Kerry was at his most emotional -- and yes, pro-Israel -- when he described the benefits of peace and when he warned of what would happen to Israel if it continued to settle land that needs to become part of the new state of Palestine for that state to be viable. “Just think of how much more secure Israel would be if it were integrated into a regional security architecture and surrounded by newfound partners,” Kerry said. “Think of an end to the unjust but also inexorable campaign to delegitimize Israel in the international community.”

The word “inexorable” is key. Much of the Saban meeting was off-the-record, so I am limited in what I can say, but many of the Israeli participants I spoke to seemed worried, in ways I hadn’t noticed before, about the international delegitimization campaign targeting their country -- economic boycotts in Europe, the beginnings of an academic boycott in the U.S. The leaders of the movement to delegitimize Israel are committed to the country’s destruction; no West Bank compromise will spur advocates of an anti-Israel boycott to stop hating the idea of a Jewish national home. But this anti-Israel movement gains strength and support by focusing not on its real complaint -- Israel’s existence itself -- but on Israel’s behavior on the West Bank. End the occupation, and the delegitimization movement loses much of its energy.

Kerry also spoke strongly about a related issue: The demographic challenge to Israel’s existence as a haven for the Jewish people and as a democracy if it holds onto the West Bank and its Palestinians indefinitely. This demographic dynamic, he said, “makes it impossible for Israel to preserve its future as a democratic, Jewish state without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a two-state solution.”

Kerry went on, “Force cannot defeat or defuse the demographic time bomb. Israel’s current state of relative security and prosperity does not change the fact that today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or the future’s. The only way to secure Israel’s long-term future and security will be achieved through direct negotiations that separate Palestinians and Israelis, resolve the refugee situation, end all claims, and establish an independent, viable Palestinian state, and achieve recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Kerry had appropriately tough words for Israeli politicians -- including those seated in the front row -- who argue that Palestinians can trust Israel, but Israel cannot trust the Palestinians. “President Abbas has made tough choices and he has stayed the course, despite people in his team saying, ‘You ought to get out of here, look at those settlements. They’re making a fool of you.’ Believe me, that battle’s been going on, because I deal with it every week.”

The conclusion that I drew from this, and other passages, is that Kerry is so anti-settlement precisely because he is so pro-Israel. I ran this conclusion, and others, by one of Israel’s most influential journalists, Ari Shavit (the author of the current best-seller, “My Promised Land”) who was also in the room for Kerry’s talk. “All my doubts have not melted away, but I was moved by the commitment, dedication and compassion the secretary presented,” Shavit said.

Kerry’s speech was neither overly cerebral nor cold, even in its moments of criticism. Some of his Middle East policy ideas may be flawed (I’ve avoided discussing Syria here, in case you haven't noticed), but he has an acute understanding of the existential challenges facing Israel, and he gave the speech of a man who would consider Israel’s disappearance a tragedy.