Kerry on Israel: Two-State Solution Is in Serious Jeopardy

John Kerry rebuked Benjamin Netanyahu's administration and outlined a potential, but improbable, path for peace.


In a scorching speech Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry launched a last-ditch but improbable plea for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinian authorities, which he said is in high peril due to ever-growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Progress on peace in the generations-long dispute has slid during the Obama administration, despite Kerry’s personal but fruitless efforts to revive it. His address, which ran almost 75 minutes, is not expected to lead to any new initiatives. Rather, it served to mark exactly where the Obama administration stands on the faltered peace accord before President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.

Kerry said a two-state solution “is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.” However, he said it “is now in serious jeopardy.”

Kerry’s speech, at the State Department, was a direct response to an Israeli backlash to Washington’s refusal last week to veto a U.N. Security Council demand for Israel to halt settlement construction. He rebuked Israeli claims that, in abstaining from the U.N. vote, the United States had betrayed Israel’s friendship.

“Some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means that the U.S. must accept any policy … even after urging again and again that the policy must change,” Kerry said. But “friends need to tell each other the hard truths.”

He said the U.S. “has done more to support Israel than any other country,” and noted the Obama administration has made unprecedented contributions in both military intelligence and financial aid to Israel. But Kerry said Washington would have betrayed its own values if it did not try to revive a two-state solution.

An hour after Kerry finished talking, Netanyahu lashed out at the American diplomat, accusing him of advancing the Security Council resolution and giving “a skewed speech against Israel.”

“For over an hour, Kerry dealt obsessively with the settlements and almost didn’t touch on the root of the conflict — the Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

In a counter-speech delivered at 9 p.m. in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he has “no doubt” the alliance between the U.S. and Israel “will endure the profound disagreement we have had with the Obama administration.” But he said “Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders,” and adding that peace would only come about through direct negotiations.

He also demanded that the United States prevent additional resolutions against Israel from being discussed at the Security Council.

The dueling speeches laid bare the ever-straining relationship the Obama administration has had with Netanyahu.  Obama and Netanyahu have never been close; tensions peaked with the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, struck between world powers and Tehran. Israel maintains the historic deal is a threat to the Jewish state.

As he prepares to take office, Trump has offered a far friendlier tone toward Israel. He has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — which would infuriate Palestinians who contest Israeli claims on the holy city.

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect,” Trump tweeted hours before Kerry’s speech. “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!”

Responding, Netanyahu tweeted, “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel.” He also, for reasons that are not immediately clear, tagged Trump’s two eldest children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka.

A day earlier, Israeli officials pledged to reveal proof that the United States was behind the Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Kerry’s speech came just hours after Israel, reportedly under Netanyahu’s instruction, delayed approving hundreds of new homes in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu has been criticized by Israeli opposition leaders for the deteriorating foreign relations and his reaction to the Security Council resolution.

Kerry repeated Washington’s denials that it drove the U.N. vote, and rejected the notion that the U.S. abstention that isolated Israel. That, he said, is Israeli policy’s doing.

In his defiant speech, Kerry said that while the two-state solution was supported in theory, it has not been embraced. And if it is jettisoned, “Israel can either be Jewish, or democratic — it cannot be both — and it won’t ever really be at peace,” he said.

Kerry also had harsh words for unrest begun by Palestinians, noting the Obama administration criticized their leaders for failing to condemn violence and terrorism.

But this was cold comfort to Netanyahu, who said in his speech that terrorist acts “are not throwaway lines in a speech.” And, indeed, the focus of the speech was undoubtedly to rap Israel for deterring a two-state solution. Kerry characterized the current Israeli government as the most right-wing in the country’s history, held hostage by the most extreme elements of Israeli politics. Many members of Netanyahu’s coalition, he noted, publicly reject a Palestinian state.

He said rapidly increasing settlements — including 90,000 located east of a separation border that Israel itself established — may not be the main driver of Israeli-Palestinian tension. But he accused Israel of continuing to build for ideological, not security, purposes. Doing so, Kerry said, only serve only to maintain the one-state status quo — said that appears to be precisely their point.

“Settlement expansions have nothing to do with Israel’s security,” Kerry said, adding that the outposts in the West Bank may in fact, endanger Israel.

“How does that help Israel’s security? How does it help the region? The answer is: It doesn’t,” Kerry said. Instead, he said, only a two-state solution will bring peace and long-term security for Israel.

Meanwhile, he said, Arab leaders are committed to changing their policy toward Israel if a two-state solution becomes a reality. “It’s waiting,” he said. “It’s right there.”

He repeated calls on both sides to commit to practical, tangible steps toward a two-state solution, and to do so “without waiting for the other side to act.” Kerry also outlined principles that might present a path for peace, many of which were merely a reiteration of U.S. policy and international law.

Kerry made Middle East peace a cornerstone of his time as the nation’s top diplomat. When he arrived in Foggy Bottom in 2013, he launched a nine-month effort to reach a “final status” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the summer of 2014.

His efforts never got off the ground, despite multiple meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry said Wednesday he did not believe his lack of progress was because the differences between the two sides were too wide, but because “the level of trust was too low.”

Though his words were fiery, Kerry is not alone in outlining a way toward a potential peace. France plans to convene talks on Jan. 15 to establish a roadmap for an improved situation between Palestinians and Israel. Israel, however, has repeatedly said that it will not attend.

Condemnation from Israeli officials came before Kerry was finished talking. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a senior Israeli Cabinet minister, called the secretary of state’s comments a “pathetic step” that would heighten tensions.

“It is an anti-democratic step because it’s clear that the administration and Kerry’s intention is to chain President-elect Trump,” Erdan told Israel Army Radio.

But the real tension, said Jessica Rosenblum, vice president of communications at the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace J Street nonprofit, is between those who support decades of policy for a two-state solution, and the administrations of Netanyahu and, soon, Trump. Both, she said, appear to be moving away from that plan for peace.

Update, Dec. 28 2016, 2:20 p.m: This piece was updated to include sentiment from Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech.

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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