By David E. Sanger
WASHINGTON – In a harsh rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Wednesday that the United States cannot “allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our eyes.”
Kerry, in one of his last speeches as secretary of state, said that Netanyahu was allowing the agenda of the settler movement to define the future of Israel. But he said “there is still a way forward if the responsible parties are willing to act.”
And he defended the Obama administration’s policy on Israel, citing what he called unprecedented military assistance and cooperation. “No American administration has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama’s,” he declared.
For Kerry, the speech was a rueful valedictory. As soon as he took over from Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in 2013, he plunged into the tarpit of Middle East peace negotiations with an enthusiasm neither his predecessor nor President Obama shared. The goal was a nine-month negotiation leading to a “final status” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the summer of 2014.
It never got that far. Despite scores of meetings between Kerry and his two main interlocutors, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Netanyahu, Kerry and his lead mediators, Martin Indyk and Frank Lowenstein, could not make progress. They blamed both sides for taking actions that undermined the process, but the continued expansion of the settlements was one of their leading complaints – an effort, in the American and European view, to establish “facts on the ground” so that territory could not be traded away.
In the years since, the population of the settlements has expanded rapidly. The effort to get talks going again never gained the slightest momentum. But Kerry’s warning, that a collapse would lead to another intifada, also did not come true. Instead it has led to stagnation and a hardening of positions.
Kerry wanted to deliver Wednesday’s speech more than two years ago, current and former aides say. But he was blocked from doing so by the White House, which saw little value in further angering Netanyahu, who has opposed any speech that might limit Israel’s negotiating room or become the basis for a U.N. Security Council resolution to guide the terms of a “final status” deal.
Now, after a remarkable confrontation with Israel after the Security Council’s passage of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements as a flagrant violation of international law, Kerry appears to have concluded there is nothing left to lose.
Netanyahu has accused the United States of “orchestrating” the vote, and his aides have said that Kerry and Obama effectively stabbed Israel in the back. Israeli officials have said they have evidence that the United States organized the resolution, which the State Department denies.
At the core of Kerry’s argument on Wednesday was the need for all sides to embrace a two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state recognizing each other. Even that idea may not last: Trump has nominated a U.S. ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, who has rejected the idea of a two-state solution – a concept that President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton also embraced – and who has helped finance the new settlements that the United Nations condemned. Clinton gave a similar speech at the end of his presidency, just after the collapse of negotiations at Camp David.
The speech was intended, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday night, to make the case that “the vote was not unprecedented” and that Obama’s decision “did not blindside Israel.” Kerry, the official said, would cite other cases in which Washington officials had allowed similar votes under previous presidents.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a coming speech, said Kerry would also argue that, with the notable exception of Israel, there was a “complete international consensus” against further settlements in areas that might ultimately be the subject of negotiations.