US secretary of state John Kerry delivered a stinging rebuke of the Israeli government on Wednesday, accusing it of making the establishment of a viable Palestinian state nearly impossible through the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
With Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu joining forces with president-elect Donald Trump to attack the Obama administration, Mr Kerry said that the US allowed a resolution critical of Israel to pass last week at the UN as a last-ditch effort to keep the idea of a “two-state solution” alive.
In the most direct and detailed criticism by a US official of Israeli settlement construction, Mr Kerry said that the West Bank was being “broken up into small parcels like a Swiss cheese that can never constitute a real state”.
“The United States cannot properly defend Israel if we allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our eyes,” he said in a speech at the state department in which he also spelt out the US vision for Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side.
Mr Kerry’s speech followed the US abstention last week on a UN resolution that condemned Jewish settlements in the occupied territories that it said were “dangerously imperilling the viability of the two-state solution” — a decision that prompted a furious reaction from Mr Netanyahu.
If the choice is one state, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic state. It cannot be both
As well as aggravating the already toxic relationship between Mr Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, the furore over the resolution has opened up an unprecedented rift between the sitting Democratic president and his Republican successor, who on Wednesday pledged to change approach when he takes office next month.
“We cannot let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect,” Mr Trump said on Twitter ahead of Mr Kerry’s speech. “The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.!)” Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Mr Netanyahu promptly followed suit, saying on Twitter: “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!”
Mr Netanyahu later delivered a scathing indictment of the speech shortly after Mr Kerry finished speaking. “Like the Security Council resolution that Secretary Kerry advanced in the UN, his speech tonight was skewed against Israel,” the Israeli leader’s office said in a prepared statement. “For over an hour, Kerry obsessively dealt with settlements and barely touched upon the root of the conflict: Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries.”
After months of deliberation about whether Mr Obama would make a major speech about the peace process before leaving office, it was Mr Kerry — whose own efforts to push for a solution collapsed in 2014 — who outlined the administration’s ideas on how a two-state solution might work.
The last-minute attention to the issue reflects the administration’s concern that time is running out for a two-state solution because of Israeli construction on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to create their future capital. Officials also fear the incoming Trump administration could side more openly with the Israeli government over settlements in a way that would make further negotiations impossible.
Mr Kerry said that 100,000 settlers had moved to areas on the West Bank since 2009, when Mr Obama took office — including 20,000 who live in settlements that are beyond the security barriers established by the Israeli state.
He warned that if Israel closed off the prospect of an independent Palestinian state, it would have to police Palestinian areas, it would likely face a civil rights movement from its Palestinian population asking for equal rights and it would incur growing international isolation, including potentially from future US administrations.
“If the choice is one state, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic state,” he said. “It cannot be both.”
Mr Kerry also laid out six conditions for a final status peace agreement. These included provisions for borders, separate states for the Jewish and Palestinian people, a “just, agreed, free and fair solution to the Palestinian refugee issue”, an agreed resolution on Jerusalem as the capital of the two states, a recognition of Israel’s security needs, and an end of all outstanding mutual claims.
Mr Netanyahu’s hard-right government has attacked the UN resolution as a move by the Palestinians to pre-empt discussion of the issues that need to be agreed in peace negotiations, and has accused the US of orchestrating the UN vote behind Israel’s back.
“We know that there was deep collusion between the Obama administration and the Palestinians in order to push this United Nations Security Council resolution forward,” David Keyes, Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, told Fox News’ ‘The Kelly File’ on Tuesday.
Mr Kerry denied that the US helped draft the resolution or secretly put it forward. However, he said that US diplomats at the UN had been in constant consultation with other governments over what it would consider an acceptable resolution — something he said was simply normal diplomatic practice at the UN.
He added that every administration since 1967 has abstained or supported UN resolutions critical of Israel, including several resolutions that opposed the construction of new settlements. The presidents who had backed similar resolutions included Ronald Reagan and George W Bush.
The Palestinians dispute the Israeli claim. “The Americans did not have a discussion with us over any draft,” a Palestinian official told the FT on Wednesday, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic. “If they decided to engage through a third country, which is their right, we do not know about it.”
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said that if Israel were willing to cease settlement activities, including in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians would be ready to resume “permanent status” peace negotiations.