Following years of built-up personal frustration, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a lengthy critique of Israeli and Palestinian leaders during a speech at the State Department on Wednesday, a mere 23 days prior to leaving office. Assailing the current status quo, America’s top diplomat emphasized, “If the choice is one-state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both and it will not ever live in peace.” In the speech, Kerry criticized Palestinian actions as well. “The murderers of innocents are still glorified on Fatah web sites, including showing attackers next to Palestinian leaders following attacks,” Kerry noted.
Kerry has invested hundreds of hours mediating between the parties and responded somewhat defensively to criticism from Israeli leaders and Members of Congress in recent days during the 70-minute address. “They fail to recognize that this friend, the United States of America, that has done more to support Israel than any other country, this friend that has blocked countless efforts to delegitimize Israel, cannot be true to our own values – or even the stated democratic values of Israel – and we cannot properly defend and protect Israel if we allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our own eyes,” he said.
Questioning how much longer the US could go on supporting Israel while the status quo remains, Kerry posed a series of rhetorical questions: “How would Israel respond to a growing civil rights movement from Palestinians, demanding a right to vote, or widespread protests and unrest across the West Bank? How does Israel reconcile a permanent occupation with its democratic ideals? How does the U.S. continue to defend that and still live up to our own democratic ideals?”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a response carried live by CNN, blasted Kerry’s speech as a “big disappointment” while calling the focus on settlements as “obsessive.” “Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by world leaders” Netanyahu declared.
Equating Kerry’s “unbalanced” remarks to the UNSC resolution, Netanyahu accused the outgoing Secretary of State of paying “lip service to the unremitting campaign of terrorism that has been waged by the Palestinians against the Jewish state for nearly a century.”
From Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated past comments that he would be ready to begin negotiations if Israel were to freeze settlement construction and referenced the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last Friday.
“The speech was replete with paternalistic, arrogant lecturing,” Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), told Jewish Insider. “The threats to peace and the implementation of a two-state solution are not Israeli settlements, but the non-recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinian incitement, and violence.”
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also criticized Kerry for focusing on the settlements while ignoring the fact that Hamas continued launching rockets into Israel after Israel forced settlers to withdraw from all settlements in the Gaza strip. “This is something that people of all political stripes in Israel vividly remember,” he said in a statement. Schumer further suggested that Kerry’s last attempt to pursue peace may have the opposite effect. “While he may not have intended it, I fear Secretary Kerry, in his speech and action at the UN, has emboldened extremists on both sides.,” he said.
Others recommended Israelis take a hard look at the substance of the Secretary of State’s remarks.
“It’s an important speech for those who support the two-state solution and do not want to see Israel’s Jewish & democratic nature being undermined,” Dan Arbell, former Deputy Chief of Israel’s Embassy in Washington, told Jewish Insider. “I regret that not many Israelis will see this as an opportunity for peace, rather than looking at this from a standpoint that the world is against us and Obama is against us. This is unhelpful and biased.”
Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington told Jewish Insider, “I think it’s probably the most sympathetic (speech) to the Palestinian cause given by a major American official.” However, Ibish found the timing of the speech problematic. The address “could have been really meaningful if it had been given two or three years ago and backed up with actual policies with real consequences. But, at this point with a couple of weeks left, it’s almost pointless.”
Nonetheless, more conservative voices remained skeptical of the speech. “Barack Obama and John Kerry’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are shared by very few Americans,” Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundations for the Defense of Democracy, explained to Jewish Insider. “Most Americans see a loyal US ally under attacks by radical Islamists and Arab rejectionists who have rejected Israel’s right to live in safety and security for decades.”
Urging Israeli leaders to not dwell in the past, Arbell noted, “Israeli leaders should listen carefully and see how they can take this speech and move forward and implement a two state solution in the future. Kerry is pro-Israel and has Israel’s best interests in mind.”
With Kerry accepting the 1967 borders as a solution to the conflict in addition to establishing Jerusalem as a capital of both states, “It’s very significant the extent to which the American position laid out by Kerry is congruent with the Arab peace initiative,” Ibish said.
Kerry’s speech carried less weight given the assurances the incoming Trump administration has given to the Israeli government about choosing a different approach to the conflict, one that is more aligned with the makeup of the current coalition government. “The main problem with Kerry’s speech is not its predictable tired content,” tweeted Shmuel Rosner. “It is the fact that he made a speech on this topic at this time.”
In his reaction to Kerry’s speech, Netanyahu said he is looking forward to working with Trump “to mitigate the damage” the UNSC resolution has done “and ultimately to repeal it.”
Trump indicated on Wednesday that he will indeed look to make up for the damage done by the outgoing Administration over the weekend. “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore,” Trump tweeted hours before Kerry’s speech. “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Netanyahu retweeted Trump, thanking the President-elect for his “warm friendship” and “clear-cut support for Israel!”
“Any potential, positive contribution from this speech was foreclosed by the Obama Administration’s shameful refusal to veto the destructive, anti-Israel UNSC resolution,” AIPAC said in a statement. The pro-Israel lobby called on Congress and the incoming Trump Administration “to renounce the recent action taken by this administration and to begin the work of repairing the damage done to the cause of peace and the U.S-Israel relationship.”
In his remarks, Kerry recalled his most recent visit to Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres. “As we laid Shimon to rest that day, many of us couldn’t help but wonder if peace between Israelis and Palestinians might also be buried along with one of its most eloquent champions. We cannot let that happen.”
Left unsaid was any role the U.S. may have played in contributing to that potential outcome. “Looking over Kerry speech, absence of any self-criticism is stunning, as though US Mideast policy has been brilliant past 8 years,” tweeted Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
During a rather divisive period of the US – Israel relationship, a rare consensus emerged among foreign policy experts in DC regarding the timing. “This speech should have been given months ago, not *after* the rushed UNSCR that hammered Israel” Jonathan Schanzer declared. Hussein Ibish replied “Yes. It would have been very useful 3 or more years ago, linked to policies with consequences. Now it’s sad and pointless, alas.”