Secretary of State John Kerry rebuked Israel for its settlement policy and warned in unusually harsh terms that a two-state solution was in serious jeopardy as the Obama administration raced to preserve its approach to the Middle East weeks before President-elect Donald Trump takes power.
Mr. Kerry’s speech on Wednesday—in which he defended a U.S. decision to allow a United Nations resolution condemning Israel’s settlements—was seen by Israeli leaders as a parting shot from an unfriendly American administration in its final weeks. But the address appeared equally intended as a message to the incoming Trump team.
Mr. Kerry spelled out principles that have long been largely consistent in American policy—the goal of Israel existing alongside a separate Palestinian state, the notion that the settlements are an impediment to peace, and the idea that Jerusalem should be the capital of both an Israeli and a Palestinian state. Mr. Trump has suggested he would consider breaking with those principles.
“President Obama and I know that the incoming administration has signaled that they may take a different path,” Mr. Kerry said at the State Department. “But we cannot in good conscience do nothing, and say nothing, when we see the hope of peace slipping away.”
The secretary condemned Palestinian violence, but his comments were most striking for taking direct aim at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and denouncing his government’s policy of steadily building homes for Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories, which he said undermined the potential for a two-state solution.
Mr. Kerry’s decision to deliver a broad, hard-hitting speech on the Middle East just three weeks before leaving office reflected the frustration many in the administration say they feel about the failure of peace efforts and the accusation by Israel and some of its Washington allies that President Barack Obama hasn’t been a loyal friend.
The address unfolded against a backdrop of an unusual exchange between Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu, both of whom appeared to deride Mr. Obama’s approach and look ahead to their own official relationship beginning soon. Before Mr. Kerry’s speech, Mr. Trump tweeted that Israel should “stay strong” until Jan. 20, when he takes office.
Mr. Netanyahu took to his own podium following Mr. Kerry’s speech to rebuke it, saying the biggest obstacle to peace has been Palestinian leaders’ refusal to accept Israel’s existence.
“Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Mr. Kerry said that the U.S. couldn’t in good conscience veto Friday’s U.N. resolution.
“The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution,” he said. “That’s what we were standing up for: Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side-by-side in peace and security with its neighbors.”
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would return to talks with Israel when it ceased settlement activities and implemented the points in the U.N. Security Council resolution.
Mr. Kerry’s address capped his own persistent efforts to advance peace, but also an unusually difficult period in U.S.-Israel relations marked by personal acrimony between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu. That tension culminated when Mr. Netanyahu—invited by Republican leaders—appeared before Congress in March 2015 to attack an international nuclear deal with Iran that Mr. Obama sees as a pillar of his legacy.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly declared his unwavering support for Israel, noting that during his tenure the U.S. committed to a $38-billion military-aid package to Israel, the largest ever.
Meanwhile, France has called an international conference on Middle East peace in Paris for Jan. 15, a move welcomed by Palestinian leaders but viewed by suspicion by Israelis who stress the importance of bilateral talks. They have pledged to boycott the Paris gathering. The State Department hasn’t said whether Mr. Kerry will attend, but Mr. Netanyahu voiced fears Wednesday that the meeting would lead to another anti-Israel U.N. resolution.
Several of Mr. Kerry’s counterparts praised his remarks, including Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
Mr. Netanyahu also repeated assertions that Israel has evidence that the U.S. colluded with the Palestinians to put forward the U.N. resolution, saying it would provide that evidence, some of it sensitive, to the incoming Trump administration.
U.S. officials deny the U.S. drove the measure. Ben Rhodes, the deputy U.S. national security adviser, said on CNN that the U.S. would veto any resolution in the U.N. that might dictate a peace solution or recognize a Palestinian state. “We’ve made that clear over and over,” he said.
In his speech, Mr. Kerry outlined several principles for a final status agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the two sides.
The principles included borders between Israel and a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines with land swaps; recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and an independent state of Palestine; accepting Jerusalem as a capital for both states; enabling normalized relations; and providing for Palestinian refugees and Israeli security needs.
These ideas aren’t new. But David Makovsky, a former member of Mr. Kerry’s negotiating team now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was uncertain what effect reiterating them publicly would have at this stage.
“By putting out what would be the end deal, are you going to bring these peoples closer?” Mr. Makovsky said. “Or does this become a new baseline of defiance: ‘Never on certain points. Never a Jewish state, never a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.’ ”
But Mr. Kerry clearly felt the need to voice a longtime frustration on the Israeli settlements.
“The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution, but his current coalition is the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” he said. “The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: greater Israel.”
Some in Israel welcomed Mr. Kerry’s remarks. Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union party and an advocate for a two-state solution, hailed Mr. Kerry for expressing “true concerns about Israel’s well-being and future.”
Mr. Kerry expended considerable effort trying to broker peace in the first half of his tenure as secretary of state, but those talks ultimately fell apart in spring 2014 over disagreements on land swaps and prisoner exchanges.