Kerry harshly condemns Israeli settler activity as an obstacle to peace

Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Wednesday harshly criticized Israeli settlements in the West Bank, saying their growth threatens to destroy the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the United States was obliged to allow passage of a U.N. resolution condemning the activity in order to preserve the possibility of peace.
Kerry noted that the number of Israelis living in settlements has grown significantly and that their outposts are extending farther into the West Bank — “in the middle of what, by any reasonable definition, would be the future Palestinian state.”

“No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of what the settlements pose to that peace,” he said.

Kerry, in the hour-long speech delivered at the State Department, also condemned Palestinian incitement to violence as a barrier to direct negotiations. But his focus was on defending the Obama administration’s policies and highlighting Israel’s actions at a moment of high tension between the two governments, following the passage of the U.N. resolution.

“Regrettably, some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles — even after urging again and again that the policy must change,” he said. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”

He said the vote at the United Nations was about “Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side by side in peace and security with its neighbors. That’s what we are trying to preserve, for our sake and for theirs.”

Saying the two-state solution was in “serious jeopardy,” Kerry said Israel would never improve its relations with Arab countries if it precludes the possibility of a separate state for Palestinians.

“If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic,” he said. “It cannot be both.”

Some Israeli politicians applauded Kerry’s speech. Former prime minister Ehud Barak tweeted that it was a “Powerful, lucid speech. World & majority in Israel think the same.”

But most Israeli leaders and the political right immediately took umbrage, accusing Kerry of trying to dictate policy to an elected government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the speech “a big disappointment.”

“He deals obsessively with the settlements, he fails to deal with the Palestinian failure to recognize a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said, adding, “If he put the same emphasis on Palestinian incitement and terror that he did on settlements then maybe we will be on the way to peace.”

Kerry acknowledged that his vision is not shared by President-elect Donald Trump.

“President Obama and I know that the incoming administration has signaled that they may take a different path, and even suggested breaking from the long-standing U.S. policies on settlements, Jerusalem — and possibly the two-state solution,” Kerry said. “That is for them to decide — that’s how we work. But we cannot, in good conscience, do nothing, and say nothing, when we see the hope of peace slipping away. This is a time to stand up for what is right.”

Trump has said that he will move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move freighted with political significance in advance of any settlement, and his nominee to be ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, has said Jewish settlements in the West Bank are legal.

About two hours before Kerry started speaking, Trump tweeted his criticism of the Obama administration:

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but . . . not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

Netanyahu, in turn, promptly tweeted his gratitude: “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!”

Although he did not mention Netanyahu by name, Kerry addressed head-on the Israeli leader’s assertions that the United States had “colluded” in and “orchestrated” last week’s U.N. resolution affirming that settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.”

Kerry denied that the United States drafted or promoted the resolution. But he acknowledged that the United States took part in preliminary discussions, as is routine. Kerry said the diplomats told other Security Council members they would oppose a resolution that did not condemn Palestinian incitement to violence. They also said if the text were more “balanced,” it was “possible” the United States would not block it.

Kerry called the current Israeli governing coalition the most right-wing in country’s history and said it is driven by an extremist settler agenda inimical to a two-state agreement.

“The result is that policies of this government, which the prime minister himself just described as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,’ are leading in the opposite direction,” Kerry said. “They’re leading towards one state.”

“The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution,” he added. “That’s what we were standing up for.”

Kerry offered six principles that he said would satisfy Israeli security needs and Palestinian aspirations for a homeland. Most have been proven sticking points in previous negotiations — among them, Jerusalem as a mutual capital for two states; normalized relations with Arab states in the region; and financial compensation for Palestinian refugees, along with acknowledgment of their suffering.

Kerry returned from vacation to give his speech, which was being worked on until a few minutes before he walked on stage in the Dean Acheson Auditorium. It was a sign that the administration was still struggling to deal with the political firestorm ignited by the resolution vote. The outrage in the Israeli government has been matched among some members of Congress.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Kerry’s speech “at best a pointless tirade in the waning days of an outgoing administration.”

The U.S. abstention has been condemned by several Democrats as well, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who is the party’s incoming leader.

But for Kerry it was a speech that captured the pent-up frustration that has grown in the two years since his nine-month effort to broker a peace agreement collapsed, and his attempts to tamp down Palestinian violence came to nothing.

And Kerry, famous for always sounding a hopeful note, was clearly pessimistic about whether his words would make any difference.

“We can only encourage them to take this path,” he said. “We cannot walk down it for them.”


Secretary of State John Kerry says two-state Middle East solution in jeopardy

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Tension between the United Sates and Israel has been ratcheting up steadily for days, and Secretary of State John Kerry's harsh speech Wednesday isn't likely to calm things down.

The U.S. cannot "allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our eyes," said Kerry, in one of his final addresses as secretary. Last week, the United States refused to veto a United Nations resolution condemning Israel's settlements in Palestinian territory. Kerry stressed that decision was in accordance with U.S. values and its history of support for Israel. "Friends need to tell each other the hard truth," he said.

"Regrettably, people think that the U.S. must accept any policy, even after urging again and again that the policy must change," Kerry said in response to criticism of their decision, adding that the Obama administration has done more to support Israel than any other U.S. administration.

Since Kerry became secretary of state nearly four years ago, he's devoted himself to the Israel-Palestine conflict with fervor, meeting frequently with leaders on both sides in an attempt to hammer out a solution that would include statehood for Palestine, a position supported by President Obama and presidents Bush and Clinton before him.

The speech came days after the landmark United States Security Council's resolution to stop Israel from building settlements in the occupied territories, calling them a violation of international law. Breaking with tradition, the U.S. abstained their veto, allowing the resolution to pass. Though most countries consider the settlements illegal, this was the first time in 36 years that the committee was able to pass a resolution condemning them.

Israel responded swiftly and furiously to the resolution. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lashed out at other countries who supported the resolution (in one case reportedly calling it a "declaration of war") and accused the Obama administration of plotting the resolution with Palestinians. "The U.S. administration secretly cooked up with the Palestinians an extreme anti-Israeli resolution behind Israel's back which would be a tailwind for terror and boycotts and effectively make the Western Wall occupied Palestinian territory," An Israeli official who spoke to the New York Times said.

With only three weeks left in office, Kerry's speech seems to be a symbolic nod towards peace, rather than concrete steps towards it, as the resolution will likely be ignored by president-elect Donald Trump. On Wednesday morning, before the speech, Trump tweeted his condemnation for Obama's decision adding that things will change once he's in office.


Secretary of State John Kerry: Two-state solution in 'serious jeopardy'

With less than a month left in office, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a stern rebuke Wednesday over Israeli settlements and warned that the two-state solution to the enduring conflict with Palestinians is at risk.

Kerry defended the United States' decision last week to abstain from a vote on -- and not veto -- a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as one aimed at "preserving the two-state solution," which he called "the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians."
"I am also here to share my conviction that there is still a way forward if the responsible parties are willing to act," Kerry said, opening his speech.

But he underscored his optimism with a warning: "Despite our best efforts over the years, the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back, deriding Kerry's speech as "skewed against Israel" in a statement Wednesday.

"For over an hour, Kerry obsessively dealt with settlements and barely touched upon the root of the conflict -- Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also signaled his support for the incoming Donald Trump administration, saying, "Israel looks forward to working with Trump to mitigate the damage this resolution has done and ultimately to repeal it. We hope the outgoing Obama administration will prevent any more damage."

The back-and-forth was a remarkable moment in US-Israeli relations. Kerry and Netanyahu were unusually candid in articulating the perceived shortcomings of the other side. The dueling speeches essentially offered both countries the opportunity to unleash nearly eight years of tension that has built up under the Obama administration. And it played out just over three weeks before Trump takes office with a pledge to work more closely with Netanyahu.

'That's how we work'
Kerry called on both Israelis and Palestinians to take steps showing the seriousness of their commitment to a two-state solution, such as complying with the terms of the Oslo Accords. He put forward six principles he argued should guide future negotiations, including secure borders for both an Israeli and Palestinian state, a "fair and realistic" solution to the question of Palestinian refugees and establishing Jerusalem as an "internationally recognized capital of the two states."

Kerry also ruled out the possibility the US would join efforts to dictate peace terms at the UN Security Council or that the US would recognize a Palestinian state without a negotiated agreement.

"The incoming administration has signaled that they may take a different path, and even suggested breaking from long-standing US policies on settlements, Jerusalem -- and possibly the two-state solution," Kerry said. "That is for them to decide. That's how we work."

Kerry acknowledged as much, noting Trump has signaled a break with long-standing US policies toward the conflict.
Trump, in his latest breach of presidential transition protocol, made clear on Twitter Wednesday morning ahead of Kerry's speech that change was on the way.

"We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)!" Trump tweeted. "Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!"

Asked about the speech later Wednesday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump said it "speaks for itself."
Congress is taking steps to back Trump's approach. House Republicans are looking to bring up a non-binding House resolution condemning a recent vote at United Nations that has caused intense blowback from Israel.

Kerry on Wednesday offered the US's most direct rejection of Israeli claims that the US worked behind the scenes to guide the UN resolution to passage and criticized those claims as an attempt to "distract attention from what the substance of this vote really was all about."

"The United States did not draft or originate this resolution, nor did we put it forward," he said, adding that the US simply made it clear to the resolution's sponsors that "if the text was more balanced, it was possible we wouldn't block it."

Kerry bemoans conflict's status quo
Kerry lamented the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories, drawing on personal experiences as he criticized Israeli and Palestinian actions he said hurt chances for a two-state solution.

He pointed to the conflict's impact on children in both Israel and the Palestinian territories -- from Israeli children facing rocket fire and must rush to shelter at the sounding of a siren, to destruction in the Gaza Strip, where he said he remembered seeing Palestinian children playing in the rubble.

Kerry argued that current Israeli settlement policy in the region was leading toward a future of "one state and perpetual occupation" and slammed the arguments of right-wing Israeli officials who argue settlements are aimed at bolstering Israel's security. He also reserved special criticism for Netanyahu, whose governing coalition Kerry called "the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements."
"They're leading towards one state," he said.

And the secretary of state also pointed to the recent rapid growth of settlements east of the 1967 borders, which have long been seen as the basis for the territory of a future Palestinian state alongside Israel.
He noted that the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has grown by 270,000 since the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.

But while he argued that settlements furthered the likelihood of a one-state solution that would jeopardize Israel's status as both a Jewish and democratic state, Kerry stressed that settlements are not "the whole or even primary cause of this conflict."

Kerry also acknowledged that Palestinian leaders, including the moderate Fatah faction that rules the West Bank, continue to glorify Palestinian terrorists who carry out attacks against Israeli civilians.

Defending the Obama administration
The outgoing secretary of state's speech at the State Department comes amid heightened tensions between the US and Israeli administrations over the UN resolution vote.

And Kerry sought to push back against arguments that the abstention amounted to a US betrayal of Israel.
He defended the administration's commitment to Israel, arguing that "no American administration has done more for Israel's security than Barack Obama's" and noting that Netanyahu has acknowledged as much as it comes to US security cooperation and military aid.

Kerry had planned to give the speech last Thursday, when the vote was originally planned. Those plans got scrapped after the proposal's original sponsor, Egypt, forced a delay for a day.

Regarding the timing of Kerry's speech, two White House sources told CNN the Obama administration wanted to make it clear where it stands on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a matter of principle and as a matter of history.

Netanyahu responds
Netanyahu offered a quick reply to Trump's tweet earlier Wednesday morning vowing stronger US backing for the Jewish state, thanking Trump on Twitter for his "warm friendship" and "clear-cut support."

And after Kerry spoke, Netanyahu derided the speech as "skewed against Israel," arguing that Israel doesn't need "to be lectured by foreign leaders." Netanyahu insisted Palestinian leaders were the "root of the problem," not Israel's government.

"In these days of the Hanukah holiday, the light must overcome the darkness, and Israel's light must overcome all challenges with the Jewish Menorah lights I would like to bring light in the world," he added.

Deputy speaker of the Knesset Ahmad Tibi, one of the most influential Arab members of Israel's parliament, slammed Netanyahu for deriding Kerry's speech, pointing to opposition among Democrats in the US to Israel's settlement policy.

"Let's face the facts: Israel is upset because this American action advances freedom and equal rights for Palestinians," Tibi said.

Netanyahu's government has said in recent days Israel will provide detailed, sensitive information to the incoming Trump administration to bolster their claims that the US played a covert role in pushing passage of the UN Security Council resolution on Israel. The Obama administration has denied any such involvement.

Netanyahu's outrage, though, has played out publicly. The Israeli prime minister launched a scathing attack on the Obama administration on Sunday and summoned the US ambassador to a face-to-face meeting.

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