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US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the US “could not, in good conscience, stand in the way” of last week’s UN Security Council 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 Palestinians,” Kerry said in an impassioned speech billed as an outline of the Obama 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 in doing so we were allowing a dangerous dynamic to take hold, which promises greater conflict and instability to a region in which we have vital interests, we would be derelict in our own responsibilities.”
Kerry added that the US’s friendship with Israel does not mean that it 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 resolution – 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.
“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning. “They used to have a great friend in the US, but … not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (UN)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
The vote has also worsened the already chilly relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack 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 came less than a month before Trump’s inauguration and is unlikely to change anything on the ground between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Netanyahu fired back shortly after Kerry finished speaking, calling the Secretary’s remarks “a great disappointment.”
“Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders,” Netanyahu said in a speech from Jerusalem. “We hope that the outgoing Obama administration will, in its waning days, prevent any more damage being done to Israel by the UN.”
Israel “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump” and lawmakers from both parties “to mitigate the damage this resolution has done, and ultimately, to repeal it,” the Prime Minister added.
Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Meir Turgeman, the committee chairman responsible for planning settlement expansions into East Jerusalem, said on Monday that Israel will “remain 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 Israel’s security than Barack Obama’s,” Kerry said. He insisted, however, that settlement expansion 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 – violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion, and the seemingly endless occupation – they are combining to destroy hopes for peace on both sides, and 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.”
“Here is a fundamental reality: If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic; it cannot be both,” he said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on 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 to 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, not including East Jerusalem, has increased by nearly 270,000 since Oslo,” Kerry said, referring to Oslo Accords, 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 Palestinians in particular, but also to the United States, and the world, about Israel’s intentions?” Kerry said.
“There’s no point in pretending that these are just enlarged settlement blocs … in the middle of what, by any reasonable definition, would be the future Palestinian state,” he added. “A settlement is not just the land that it’s on – it is also what the location does to the movement of people, what it does to the ability of a road to connect people, one community to another, what it does to the sense of statehood that is chipped away with each new construction.”
Kerry said, 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, he said, “you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves” on the West Bank, living “separate and unequal” under Israeli occupation.
Kerry added 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 democratic ideals?” he said. “How does the US continue to defend that and still live up to our own democratic ideals?”