State Department spokesman brands settlements ‘illegal’
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State Department spokesman brands settlements ‘illegal’

John Kirby later clarifies harsh departure from usual language, also stresses US belief that 'two-state solution is possible, but requires leadership'

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

State Department Spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the State Department on January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN)
State Department Spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the State Department on January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN)

WASHINGTON — State Department spokesman John Kirby reaffirmed the US commitment to a two-state solution and longstanding opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank — referring in unusually harsh language to the enterprise’s “illegality” — five days after President-elect Donald Trump announced he would appoint an outspoken settlements supporter, David Friedman, to be the next US ambassador to Israel.

Speaking with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday afternoon, Kirby responded to Friedman’s nomination by saying the Obama administration’s stance opposing settlement expansion covers “generations of US policy on both sides of the aisle.”

“Our policy is entirely consistent with that longstanding view about settlements, and to the degree also, not just the illegality of them, but that they are not helping us get to a two-state solution, and everybody says that they want to get to a two-state solution,” Kirby said.

Designating Israel’s settlement of the West Bank “illegal” is unusual for an American official, as US policy has long avoided invoking international law.

According to veteran Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, such a characterization would undercut the US negotiating position of seeking to keep in place the major blocs that Israel would likely retain under any permanent accord in exchange for mutually agreed upon land swaps within Israel proper for a future Palestinian state.

“Since the Reagan administration, the US made a policy that settlements were a political issue and not a legal issue,” Ross told The Times of Israel in October 2015.

US President Obama delivering his famed Cairo Speech in 2009. The president highlighted the need for social progress in his first major address to the Muslim world. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)
US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

President Barack Obama twice bucked that tradition — once in his 2009 Cairo speech and again to the UN General Assembly that same year. However, the term he used in both those speeches referred to the “legitimacy” of the settlements and not their “illegality.”

In a later Tweet, Kirby sought to clarify his language, saying he “intended to repeat US position [regarding] illegitimacy of settlements.”

Appearing on Mitchell’s program Tuesday, Kirby was asked to respond to Friedman’s appointment and what it may signal for the future of US policy in the region.

Over the course of the campaign, the 57-year-old bankruptcy lawyer was vocal in his belief that settlement activity is not an obstacle to peace and that Israel does not face a “demographic threat” to its Jewish character if it fails to separate from the Palestinians.

In a November interview with The Times of Israel, Friedman stated that based on his discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority” for the president-elect. “I don’t think he is wed to any particularly outcome. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way,” he said.

Donald Trump and attorney David Friedman exit the Federal Building, following an appearance in US Bankruptcy Court on February 25, 2010, in Camden, New Jersey. (Bradley C Bower/Bloomberg News, via Getty Images / JTA)
Donald Trump and attorney David Friedman exit the Federal Building, following an appearance in US Bankruptcy Court on February 25, 2010, in Camden, New Jersey. (Bradley C Bower/Bloomberg News, via Getty Images / JTA)

He also suggested that Trump would not apply pressure to Israel over approving construction projects in the West Bank, saying he would not “dictate to Israel where it can and cannot build” and that “he’s not going to put his finger on the scale or tell Israel what policies they should adopt.”

Friedman himself is president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports a large West Bank settlement just outside Ramallah.

Over the last year, he at times excoriated groups who express criticism of Israel’s settlement policy. This summer, Friedman accused supporters of the liberal Zionist organization J Street of being “far worse than kapos” in a column for the far-right Israel National News website, referring to Jews who assisted Nazis during the Holocaust. Speaking before the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum earlier this month, he doubled down on his comparison.

Kirby did not directly address Friedman’s history but stated that the United States is “still committed” to “a viable two-state solution.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, December 6, 2013 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, December 6, 2013 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

“Secretary Kerry’s still committed to that, and we’re going to continue to work on it, because we think it is obviously for the betterment not only the Israeli people and the Palestinians, but the whole region,” he said.

The next administration, he added, will have to choose what policies it decides to pursue. “That’s really for them to speak to and for them to decide, and for their ambassador designate to work through the confirmation process.”

Kirby also reasserted the State Department’s belief that the window for a two-state outcome has not been closed, but that it rests with the parties’ willingness to make a deal.

“We still believe that a viable two-state solution is possible, but it requires leadership, it requires compromise, it requires solid decisions by leaders in the region,” he said. “And thus far, it’s been a struggle to see those leaders make those kids of decisions.”

This report was updated to include the clarification John Kirby tweeted following his Tuesday MSNBC interview.

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