British PM Theresa May scolds Kerry over Israel

© (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, pool, File)
Britain, edging towards Trump, scolds top U.S. diplomat over Israel

Britain scolded U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for describing the Israeli government as the most right-wing in Israeli history, a move that aligns Prime Minister Theresa May more closely with President-elect Donald Trump.

After U.S. President Barack Obama enraged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by refusing to veto a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, Kerry's public rebuke of Israel has unsettled some allies such as Britain.

Amid one of the United States' sharpest confrontations with Israel since the 1956 Suez crisis, Kerry said in a speech that Israel jeopardizeds hopes of peace in the Middle East by building settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

While Britain voted for the UN resolution that so angered Netanyahu and says that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal, a spokesman for May said that it was clear that the settlements were far from the only problem in the conflict.

In an unusually sharp public rebuke of Obama's top diplomat, May's spokesman said that Israel had coped for too long with the threat of terrorism and that focusing only on the settlements was not the best way to achieve peace between Jew and Arab.

London also took particular issue with Kerry's description of Netanyahu's coalition as "the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements."

"We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically-elected government of an ally," May's spokesman said when asked about Kerry 70-minute speech in the State Department's auditorium.

The U.S. State Department said it was surprised by the remarks from May's office and said Kerry's comments were in line with Britain's own policy. It pointedly also thanked Germany, France, Canada, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates for support.


Britain has long cherished its so-called "special relationship" with the United States as a central pillar of its foreign policy, but May has struggled to build relations with Trump's transition team.

Following his election, Trump spoke to nine other world leaders before he spoke to May while he caused astonishment in London when he suggested that Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage should be Britain's ambassador to Washington.

By openly criticizing Kerry, who will leave office in just weeks, May moves British policy closer to Trump than its other European allies such as Germany and France.

Trump has denounced the Obama administration's treatment of Israel and promised to change course when he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

"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," Trump said in a series of tweets. "Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!"

Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has come out in favor of the Kerry speech while France holds a Middle East conference next month in Paris.

But Australia has distanced itself from Obama's stance on Israel, ABC reported.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was convinced peace with Israel was achievable but demanded that Israel halt settlement building before talks restarted.


Netanyahu has been witheringly critical of Kerry's speech. In a statement released shortly after it was delivered, Netanyahu accused Kerry of bias and said Israel did not need to be lectured to by foreign leaders.

Netanyahu said he looked forward to working with Trump.

Kerry "obsessively dealt with settlements," Netanyahu said in his response, and barely touched "the root of the conflict - Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries."

In Israel, Kerry's speech has played into the hands of Israel's far-right national-religious movement, led by Naftali Bennett, the education minister, who is in Netanyahu's cabinet but very critical of Netanyahu and is trying to position himself as a future potential leader.

Bennett's party, Jewish Home, wants to annexe large parts of the West Bank and openly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. He is advocating for more settlements and the legalization of outpost settlements, which even the Israeli government considers illegal.

"This administation's policy has left the Middle East up in flames," Bennett said after Kerry's speech. "The one free democracy has been thrown under the bus - and that's Israel."

Brexit: Theresa May urged to rule out interim deal

Theresa May has been urged to rule out a transitional Brexit deal and ensure the UK's full exit from the EU within two years of negotiations beginning.

Campaign group Leave Means Leave said a "clean, swift" exit should be among the PM's red lines for upcoming talks.

It also said the UK must withdraw from the single market, customs union and common farming and fisheries policies.

On Thursday, a former top EU lawyer warned of a "catastrophe" for the UK if no interim trade accord was struck.

Jean-Claude Piris, head of the EU Council's legal service from 1988 to 2010, said there was no way the UK could negotiate a new free trade deal with the rest of the EU in the two years set aside for determining the UK's exit - warning it would take at least five years and probably more.

'Walk away'
He told the Financial Times that the UK must avoid falling into the "WTO gap" - whereby its trading arrangements with the rest of the EU reverted to World Trade Organisation rules with likely tariffs and border checks - and this would require some form of stop-gap agreement.
But Leave Means Leave said there could be no interim arrangement that required the UK to remain in the single market or customs union.

The pressure group, which emerged from the Leave.EU campaign during the EU referendum, said this would be unacceptable as it would require the UK to abide by freedom of movement obligations, remain subject to the European Court of Justice and reduce its scope to strike trade deals outside Europe.

"The UK must leave the EU within two years of triggering Article 50," Richard Tice and John Longworth, the co-chairmen of the organisation, wrote in a letter to the prime minister setting out their principles for the talks ahead.

"There must be no transitional deal on the key issues."

"The EU is renowned for its inability to secure trade deals within a sensible timeframe and the UK must be prepared to walk away and secure trade deals with the rest of the world if the EU fails to agree a deal in this timeframe."
The two men said other "core principles" - including a commitment to end the preferential treatment given to citizens of EU countries in terms of living and working in the UK - should not be sacrificed in the forthcoming talks.

Ministers have suggested a transitional deal remains an option although Mrs May has insisted she believes the outline of a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU can also be resolved during the allotted time.

The prime minister has said she will notify the rest of the EU of the UK's intention to leave - by triggering Article 50 of the 2008 Lisbon Treaty - by the end of March at the latest, paving the way for the UK's potential exit at some point in 2019.

Theresa May Scolds Kerry for Focus on Israel Settlements

LONDON — Even the so-called special relationship is subject to limits, it seems.

With a Republican administration under Donald J. Trump only weeks away, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain scolded Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday night for his speech criticizing Israel — a public jab that would have been highly unlikely any other time during the Obama administration.

In a statement that echoed Mr. Trump’s fierce criticism of the Obama administration, Mrs. May chided Mr. Kerry for, among other things, describing the Israeli government as the “most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements.”

Mrs. May does “not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” a spokesman for the prime minister said, using the department’s customary anonymity.

Mr. Kerry’s speech was praised by other European nations, including France and Germany. So the British slap — especially after Mrs. May’s government voted last week for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction — was something of a shock to Washington.

“We are surprised by the U.K. Prime Minister’s office statement,” the State Department said in a statement, noting that Mr. Kerry’s remarks “were in line with the U.K.’s own longstanding policy and its vote at the United Nations.”

But Mrs. May, who leads a Conservative government, has been trying, with mixed success, to make inroads with the incoming Trump administration. A strong political and trading relationship with the United States has become even more important for Britain after its vote this year to leave the European Union.

Ian Black, a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics, wrote on Twitter that Mrs. May’s remarks were an “alarming early sign of ‘Trump effect’ on fawning Brits desperate to stay ‘special’ in Brexit era.”

So far, there have been some notable hiccups. The British government was vocally unhappy that the first British politician to meet with Mr. Trump after his election victory was not Mrs. May. Instead, it was one of her rivals, Nigel Farage, the former leader of the anti-Europe, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party. The visit was even memorialized in a photograph of Mr. Farage and Mr. Trump standing in front of gilded doors at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Mr. Trump suggested publicly that Mrs. May appoint Mr. Farage as Britain’s ambassador to the United States, a suggestion Mrs. May firmly rejected.

Britain’s relations with the Obama administration have not always been smooth, either, with major disagreements over Syria policy and military spending. But the countries are close, especially when it comes to NATO and the sharing of intelligence.

Mrs. May’s criticism of Mr. Kerry represented an extraordinary public rebuke, even if President Obama is about to exit the scene. But it also offered her a chance to establish common ground with the new American administration.

Mr. Trump, a firm defender of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, has publicly disparaged the Obama administration for abstaining — rather than using its veto — last week in the Security Council vote on Israeli settlements.

The president-elect was also critical of Mr. Kerry’s end-of-term speech, which defended the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and called for an end to Israeli settlement activity that, he said, undermines that possibility.

The British government has been working with Trump aides on an early visit to the White House by Mrs. May, to show the continuing strength of British-American ties.

Kim Darroch, the British ambassador in Washington, has said that Mrs. May and Mr. Trump want to “build on the legacy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.”

In an election night diplomatic message about the Trump victory, leaked to The Sunday Times of London, Mr. Darroch discussed how the inexperienced Mr. Trump might be malleable to British advice and guidance.

“The president-elect is above all an outsider and unknown quantity, whose campaign pronouncements may reveal his instincts, but will surely evolve and, particularly, be open to outside influence if pitched right,” Mr. Darroch wrote.

“Having, we believe, built better relationships with his team than have the rest of Washington diplomatic corps, we should be well placed to do this,” he continued.

But Mr. Trump’s initial discussions with foreign leaders have been haphazard. His first conversation with Mrs. May came after a string of other phone calls, when traditionally it has been the British prime minister who has the first call with an elected president.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper, Azriel Bermant, a lecturer in international relations at Tel Aviv University, suggested that, by criticizing Mr. Kerry and currying favor with both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu, Mrs. May may be hoping to, as Mr. Darroch suggested, persuade Mr. Trump to act more moderately in the Middle East and support the two-state solution that Mr. Kerry was defending.

“May might have calculated that retaining influence with the Netanyahu government requires her to distance herself from the Obama administration which is not flavor of the month in Jerusalem,” Mr. Bermant wrote. “Britain remains one of Israel’s strongest allies in Europe and May wants to keep it that way.”

The issue Mrs. May took with Mr. Kerry’s remarks was not about the legality of the Israeli settlements. The British government voted in favor of the Security Council resolution because, like other European members of the Council, Britain has long considered settlements beyond the 1967 armistice lines to be illegal.

“But we are also clear that the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict,” Mrs. May’s spokesman said. “In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long.”

In fact, while Mr. Kerry concentrated on the settlement issue, he also spoke of the need for Israelis to live with security, and he criticized Palestinians as not doing enough to combat terrorism.

But with Mr. Trump elected, Britain is moving on.

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