Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s been tasked with the increasingly grueling job of dealing with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideologically rigid leadership, gave an unusually fiery speech on Wednesday outlining the Obama Administration’s reasoning in not vetoing last week’s UN Security Council decision against Israeli settlement activity.
In a nutshell: because Israeli settlers illegally building homes deep into Palestinian territory makes the prospect of a two-state solution—long accepted as the only pathway, if inherently bumpy, towards relative peace in the region—effectively impossible, undermining Israel’s own long-term interests as well as Palestinian interests, U.S. interests, and the stability of an already destabilized Middle East. The extreme obviousness of this fact did not particularly help him get his point across to Israeli leadership, the GOP, several U.S. Jewish groups, and incoming Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer.
This was the Obama administration’s attempt to draw a line in the sand on the two-state solution, although it might be looked back upon as more of a shriek into the abyss. In response to the UN resolution, President-Elect Trump—whose new Israel ambassador openly supports settlement construction—made the unprecedented move (of course!) to aggressively insert himself into the foreign policy decisions of a sitting president. He tweeted Wednesday morning:
(In response to Trump, prior to Kerry’s speech, Netanyahu tweeted: “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel! @IvankaTrump @DonaldJTrumpJr”)
In the speech, Kerry emphasized the United States’ unwavering support for Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself—in September, the Obama administration committed $38 billion in military aid, the largest amount of military assistance the U.S. has ever given another country; more than 50% of the US’s foreign military aid goes to Israel—including, he added, “during actions in Gaza that sparked great controversy.” He also acknowledged the extreme difficulties of negotiating with Palestinian leadership that fails to check extremist groups like Hamas, who “refuse to accept Israel’s very right to exist” and “are willing to kill innocents in Israel and put the people of Gaza at risk in order to advance that agenda.”
However, Kerry noted, settlements have been increasing—the settler population has risen by 100,000 since just 2009—and although they are not the only obstacle to peace, they aren’t doing anything good. “Let’s be clear,” he said. “Settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security; many settlements actually increase the security burden on the IDF. And leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations.” In a notably scathing assessment, he referred to Netanyahu’s coalition as “the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements.”
From the Washington Post’s report on the Obama Administration’s thinking:
“People debated whether the backlash to the vote, if we abstained, would do more harm than good, that it would reverberate into our politics, into Israeli politics, and would accelerate trends,” a senior administration official said. But “every potential argument about making things worse is already happening.”
Netanyahu’s government (and in turn, his allies in the GOP) has effectively framed all criticism of current Israeli policy as “anti-Israel,” and often as anti-Semitism, an ironic stunt considering the terrifying rise of actual anti-Semitism that’s aligned itself with right-wing parties in the U.S. and Europe. “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,” Kerry said. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
Kerry also pointed out that similar steps were taken by previous administrations, notably the Reagan administration. The speech is 70 minutes long, so here’s the main thrust:
Despite our best efforts over the years, the two state solution is now in serious jeopardy. The truth is that trends on the ground –violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation – are destroying hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want. Today, there are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state, or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both –and it won’t ever really be at peace.
(That last line in particular has really ground the gears of Twitter conservatives determined to misunderstand it, even though it is fully correct: if Israel defers to a one-state solution and permanent occupation, remaining a majority-Jewish state would require some level of permanent disenfranchisement for non-Jews, already a pretty big problem. Not that things are much better from where we’re standing.)
In response, 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,” he said.
Since the resolution passed, Israel announced that it would move ahead with thousands of new settlements and promised retribution against Security Council countries. “The man who just a month ago told us that the world worships him, declared war this evening on the world, on the United States, on Europe, and is trying to calm us with conceit,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog said of Netanyahu in a Facebook post.
Netanyahu has accused the U.S. of “colluding” with Palestinians in an effort to get the UN resolution passed and of drafting the speech itself, and promised to share “evidence” of this with the incoming administration. Kerry denied such collusion in his speech, although he acknowledged that the U.S. took part in “preliminary” discussions and told other Security Council members that they “might” not block a resolution if it was balanced enough. A leaked document reported by Haaretz via an Egyptian news site, whose contents the State Department and government officials have denied as false, reportedly showed U.S. officials promising not to veto the resolution if balanced wording was used. Haaretz noted that the document could not be determined as authentic.
U.S. officials told the Washington Post that “while Kerry and Rice met separately with Erekat during a visit here, they said, there was no intelligence official and no discussion of a resolution.” Multiple diplomats told the Post that “few—if any” council members knew how the U.S. would vote on Friday.
This has all boiled over into something very convoluted and very polarized, even by Israel-Palestinian conflict standards. Lucky for the world, Trump’s got a completely unqualified bankruptcy lawyer on the case.