In parting shot, Kerry tears into Israel over settlements

Secretary of State John Kerry tore into Israel on Wednesday for settlement-building, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of dragging Israel away from democracy and forcefully rejecting the notion that America had abandoned Israel with a controversial U.N. vote. Israel’s government accused Kerry of a skewed attempt to blame Israel for failing to reach a peace deal.

In a farewell speech, Kerry laid out a vision for peace that he won’t be in office to implement, but that the U.S. hoped might be heeded even after President Barack Obama leaves office. He staunchly defended Obama’s move last week to allow the U.N. Security Council to declare Israeli settlements illegal, the spark that set off an extraordinary and deepening diplomatic spat between the U.S. and its closest Mideast ally.

“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,” Kerry said in a speech that ran more than an hour, a comprehensive airing of grievances that have built up in the Obama administration over eight years but were rarely, until this month, discussed publicly.

Breaking sharply from longstanding U.S. policy that foreign powers shouldn’t impose a solution, Kerry unveiled a six-part outline of what a future peace deal could look like. The outline tracked closely with principles long assumed to be part of an eventual deal, and Kerry insisted he was merely describing what’s emerged as points of general agreement.

Pushing back on Israel’s fury at the U.S. abstention in the United Nations vote, Kerry questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to Palestinian statehood, which has formed the basis for all serious peace talks for years. Though Netanyahu says he believes in the two-state solution, Kerry said, the government he leads is “the most right-wing in Israel’s history.”

“The settler agenda is defining the future of Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state,” Kerry said.

While Israel’s Arab population has citizenship rights, the roughly 2.5 Palestinians living in the West Bank do not. Israel controls their ability to move, they can be subject to Israeli military law and they do not have a right to vote in Israeli elections. Instead, they are governed by the Palestinian Authority, which has only limited powers of autonomy.

Netanyahu planned to respond personally later Wednesday in a televised statement. His office issued a statement denouncing the speech, arguing it was “skewed against Israel.”

“Kerry obsessively dealt with settlements and barely touched upon the root of the conflict: Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries,” the prime minister’s office said.

Israel’s government was enraged after the U.S. abstained from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution last week that called Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem a violation of international law. Netanyahu accused the U.S. of colluding with the Palestinians and helping draft the resolution.

The U.S. has vehemently denied those charges. Kerry insisted the U.S. “did not draft or originate” the resolution, introduced by Egypt and later by a handful of other nations.

“The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution. That’s what we were standing up for,” Kerry said.

Kerry said a future deal would have to ensure secure borders for Israel and a Palestinian state formed in territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, with “mutually agreed, equivalent swaps.” He said both countries must fully recognize each other, ensure access to religious sites and relinquish all other existing claims. Kerry also called for assistance to help Palestinian refugees.

Kerry offered fewer details about how the parties could get to such a deal, given the failure of so many previous attempts, including his own 9-month effort that collapsed in 2014. He urged Israelis and Palestinians to take “realistic steps on the ground now” to show seriousness of purpose and begin separating themselves into two states.

In addition to allowing the U.N. vote on settlements, Obama had considered giving his own speech laying out peace deal parameters but opted to let Kerry deliver the message, White House officials said. If there was any solace for Israel, it was Kerry’s assurances that Obama wasn’t planning other parting shots, such as promoting a U.N. resolution laying out parameters or recognizing Palestinian statehood.

For years, Obama has been deeply frustrated by the continuing growth of Israeli settlements despite his pleas to Netanyahu to rein them in. Israel’s government argues previous freezes on settlement construction have failed to spur progress toward a peace deal and that stopping or removing them mustn’t be a precondition for future talks.

The international community overwhelmingly opposes Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians for an independent state. The Palestinians, and most of the world, see settlements, now home to 600,000 Israelis, as an obstacle to peace.

Kerry reiterated that the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel was as strong as that of previous presidents, but he also noted that previous U.S. administrations had also abstained on certain resolutions critical of Israel. He emphasized the record levels of military assistance the U.S. has provided Israel under Obama, codified by a new 10-year aid deal worth $38 billion.

Obama, who is vacationing with his family in Hawaii, hasn’t commented publicly on the resolution or the resulting spat.

Seeking to show he wasn’t focusing exclusively on Israel’s failings, Kerry in the same sentence bemoaned Israel’s “seemingly endless occupation” of Palestinian land and Palestinian leaders’ “incitement” of violence. He invoked the widespread concern that the growing Arab population will eventually make Jews a minority in Israel, creating a democratic crisis for Israel unless there’s a separate Palestinian state.

Israeli leaders have made no secret that they are counting on Trump to change U.S. policy. The president-elect has urged Israel to “hang on” until Jan. 20, when he becomes president.

“President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel,” Netanyahu said on Twitter before Kerry’s speech.


Lederman reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.