Tensions ratcheted higher between the U.S. and Israel on Wednesday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his harshest rebuke of Israeli settlement expansion, saying it leads toward a “separate but unequal” one-state reality that puts any hope of an Israel-Palestine two-state solution in “serious jeopardy.”
“The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: greater Israel,” Kerry told those gathered at the State Department. “So if there is only one state, you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank, with no real political rights.”
Kerry delivered his vision for the end of the longtime Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a negotiated two-state solution that has been standard U.S. policy for decades — with less than a month before his term expires and amid rapidly escalating tensions between the U.S. and Israel. The late-term timing of the speech led critics on both sides of the discussion to ask why now?
“This is an excellent speech, but it is also quite dismal that they shared this in Obama’s twelfth hour as president, and not when they could have actually marshaled U.S. power internationally to give it meaningful impact,” said Noura Erakat, a human rights lawyer and Assistant Professor at George Mason University. Erakat said that the speech was likely little more than the Obama administration attempting to disassociate the president’s legacy on Israel from President-elect Trump’s future policies.
Since the 1993 peace accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians, the number of Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has grown from 262,000 to nearly 600,000, according to the Israeli group Peace Now. Many of the settlements, considered by much of the world to be illegal under international law, are built on land slated to be part of a future Palestinian state.
The Secretary’s speech was immediately met with harsh criticism from Israeli officials, who barely hid their contempt for the current White House — Netanyahu said Israel did “not need to be lectured,” and called the speech “biased against Israel,” while a member in his Cabinet called it “pathetic.”
Kerry’s unusually strident criticism of Israeli settlements came a week after the U.S. declined to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements as illegal under international law — a move the Secretary said was meant to push back against the “most extreme elements” within the Israeli government, and return the country to a path where the two-state solution was still viable.
The American abstention on the resolution sparked a heated Israeli reaction, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters unleashing a barrage of public attacks at the Obama administration and many leading members of the U.N. Security Council, including Britain, France, New Zealand and Russia.
Netanyahu claims the Obama administration worked behind Israel’s back to push the resolution — a charge rejected by Kerry, who in his speech pointed out that the U.S. stood by Israel through its heavily criticized wars in Gaza and recently inked a deal to give Israel $38 billion in U.S. military aid over the next 10 years.
“Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect,” Kerry said in his speech.
But Netanyahu and his supporters have been emboldened by Trump, who today chimed in on Twitter to voice his support for Israel. “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect… Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!,” the president-elect wrote. Soon after Trump’s tweet, Netanyahu offered his latest Twitter display of affection: “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!”
For Israeli settlers and their supporters in the Israeli government, Trump, who has promised to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — an issue fraught with its own set of controversies — can’t get into office soon enough.
American presidents have long condemned Israel’s building of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and some, like President George H.W. Bush, have temporarily cut U.S. loan guarantees as a result.
But settler leaders believe Trump’s appointment of David Friedman as his U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Jason Greenblatt as his chief negotiator on international issues, portend a Trump administration that will bless Israeli settlement building, and effectively kill any dream of a Palestinian state. Friedman, a fundraiser for a hard-line Israeli settlement, and Greenblatt, who studied in a religious school in a West Bank settlement, do not believe Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace, despite the fact that they break up the West Bank into isolated islands, making a contiguous state impossible.
David Halperin, the executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, said that the appointment of Friedman was not a good sign for peace, though it was far too early to tell which direction Trump will ultimately go on Israel.
But Halperin warned of the consequences of continuing to build Israeli settlements, a policy Trump encouraged in a May interview with the British tabloid Daily Mail.
“It is incredibly naive to think that a far-right-wing agenda will be advanced and there will not be any consequences,” said Halperin, who said he was worried about a resumption of violence. “The longer this issue is ignored, the more likely it will find its way back to the front pages in ways that we will all regret.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas quickly followed behind Kerry’s speech, saying he was ready to resume peace talks with Israel on the condition that the government “agrees to cease all settlement activities.”