After facing months of public attacks from Israeli officials for his "misplaced obsession" with peace between Arabs and Israelis, Secretary of State John Kerry received a ringing — and striking — public endorsement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.
During a speech in front of a hawkish pro-Israel audience, Netanyahu applauded Kerry’s devotion to peace negotiations and offered support for what those efforts could achieve.
"We could better the lives of hundreds of millions," Netanyahu said. "That’s why I want to thank the indomitable John Kerry."
The remarks came at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization that has been increasingly at odds with the Obama administration’s efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program and broker peace in the Middle East. Those tensions burst into the open earlier this year when AIPAC lobbied lawmakers to pass legislation that would impose new punitive measures on Iran if the current talks ended without a deal. The administration threatened to veto the bill, and it eventually stalled in the Senate.
The veto threat was part of a concerted administration effort to persuade Netanyahu to accept a framework plan for final-status peace negotiations with the Palestinians that Kerry and a small team of experts have been working on for several months. The plan is not likely to be unveiled until President Obama meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in March.
In his 40-minute speech to a packed auditorium at the Washington Convention Center, Netanyahu offered familiar complaints about the Palestinians’ refusal to accept a Jewish state and repeated his opposition to the idea of using troops from the United States or other countries to help keep the peace between Arabs and Israelis if a deal was reached.
Still, the speech avoided any direct attacks against the Obama administration’s foreign policy efforts — a tone that stood in contrast to the somewhat icy showdown between Netanyahu and Obama on Monday. According to a transcript of the meeting, Netanyahu said he would never compromise on Israel’s security while Obama warned that time was running out for Netanyahu and that "tough decisions are going to have to be made."
Netanyahu’s government has also infuriated the White House in recent months by attacking senior Obama administration officials in unusually pointed terms. In January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon lambasted Kerry’s Arab-Israeli peace efforts as naive.
"Secretary of State John Kerry – who has come to us determined and is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling – cannot teach me a single thing about the conflict with the Palestinians," Yaalon was quoted as saying. "The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us alone."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki blasted the reported comments as "offensive and inappropriate." The defense minister’s office later offered a mild apology for the remarks.
In his speech Monday, Netanyahu repeated his willingness to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute albeit with an undivided Jerusalem — something Palestinians say they won’t accept. He emphasized that a deal could have positive second order effects throughout the Middle East.
"Peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships," he said, referring to technology sharing in the fields of education, medicine and horticulture. "The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship … I think this combination could catapult the entire region forward."
In his own speech Monday night, Kerry tried to address the AIPAC crowd’s skepticism about his peacemaking efforts. "Now, some folks have asked why I’m so committed to these negotiations, why I’m so convinced peace is possible," Kerry said. "This isn’t about me. This is about the dreams of Israelis and the dignity of Palestinians."
The speech received mild applause and a short standing ovation after he exited the stage.