Agence France-Presse/John Macdougall
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that the US “could not, in good conscience, stand in the way” of last week’s UN vote to bar Israel from expanding settlements onto Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“The two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestianians,” Kerry said, in an impassioned speech billed as an outline of the administration’s vision for peace in the Middle East.
“My job, above all, is to defend the United States of America,” he said. “If we were to stand idly by and know that we were allowing a dangerous dynamic to take hold in a region in which we have vital interests, we would be derelict in our responsibilities.”
Kerry added that “the US’ friendship with Israel does not mean that we should accept any policy” Israel espouses.
“Friends need to tell each other the hard truths,” he said, insisting that the US had acted “in accordance with our values” when it chose not to veto the UN resolution. “And friendships require mutual respect.”
The vote — which passed 14-0 with only the US abstaining — infuriated Israel and prompted President-elect Donald Trump to promise that “things will be different” at the UN after he takes office on January 20. It has also worsened the already-chilly relations between Neytanyahu and President Obama, stemming most prominently from the US-led nuclear negotiations with Iran and Obama’s longstanding opposition to Israel’s settlement policy.
Kerry’s speech, coming less than a month before Trump’s inauguration, is unlikely to change anything on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians.
Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, the committee chairman responsible for planning settlement expansions into east Jerusalem, said on Monday that Israel “remains unfazed by the UN vote, or by any other entity that tries to dictate what we do in Jerusalem.”
Turgeman said he plans to move forward with the construction of nearly 6,000 new homes in the predominantly Palestinian eastern Jerusalem, and anticipated that 600 new settlements would be approved on Wednesday alone.
“I hope the Israeli government and the new US administration will support us,” Turgeman said, “so we can make up for the lack [of support] during the eight years of the Obama administration.”
Kerry rejected the assertion that the Obama administration had not been supportive of Israel.
“No American administration has done more for Israeli security than Barack Obama’s,” Kerry said. He insisted, however, that settlement expansion actually placed a security burden on Israel’s defense forces and was an impediment to peace with the rest of the Arab world.
“Trends on the ground, including settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation, are increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want,” Kerry said, noting that “the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy.”
“The fundamental reality,” he said, “is that if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, but it can’t be both.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it was “reducing” working ties with 12 of the UN Security Council countries that voted to pass the resolution, and Netanyahu said during a cabinet meeting Sunday that he had “no doubt” the Obama administration colluded with the Palestinians behind Israel’s back.
The White House has vehemently denied those allegations, and Kerry condemned the Palestinians’ “incitement of violence” against Israelis through rocket, car, and knife attacks. But he said that he didn’t think Israelis, or the world, realized “how broad and systematic” the process of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank had become.
“The settler population in the West Bank alone has increased by about 270,000 since the Oslo Accords were signed,” Kerry said, referring to the set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in 1994 that established Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.
“What does that say to the world, and to the US, about Israel’s intentions?” Kerry asked.
“There’s no point in pretending that these are just enlarging settlement blocs in the middle of what, by any reasonable definition, constitutes the future Palestinian state,” he added. “A settlement is not just about the land it is on — it is also about the sense of statehood that is chipped away with each new construction.”
Kerry noted, moreover, that “much of the West Bank” is “essentially off-limits” to Palestinian development, and that “the settler agenda is defining the future of Israel.”
When that agenda succeeds, Kerry said, “you will have millions of Palestinians living in permanent enclaves” on the West Bank, living “separately but unequally” under Israeli occupation.
He then noted that the US can’t live up to its own democratic ideals and ignore Palestinian calls for self-determination.
“How does Israel reconcile a permanent occupation with its permanent ideals?” Kerry asked. “How does the US continue to defend that and still live up to our own ideals?”