US Secretary of State John Kerry launched an unusually bitter public attack on Israeli policies in the West Bank Thursday, warning that if current peace talks fail, Israel could see a third intifada and growing international isolation, and that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions would increase. Kerry made the comments during a joint interview with Israel’s Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation.
“The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos,” Kerry said. “I mean does Israel want a third Intifada?” he asked. “Israel says, ‘Oh we feel safe today, we have the wall. We’re not in a day to day conflict’,” said Kerry. “I’ve got news for you. Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s…” Israel’s neighbors, he warned, will “begin to push in a different way.”
The secretary went on: “If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis.”
Turning to settlements and Israel’s presence in the West Bank, he added: “If we do not resolve the question of settlements, and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have; if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to non-violence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.”
He also said ongoing settlement construction risked creating the sense that Israel was not “serious” about wanting a permanent accord. The US, he stressed, considers “settlements are illegitimate” and believes that “the entire peace process would be easier if these settlements were not taking place.”
How could Israel credibly claim to be working for peace, he asked, when it kept on building settlements in an area that was going to be Palestine?
Still, he said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed not to go ahead and build the new homes planned for the settlements so long as the peace talks continued, and thus not to “affect the peace map.”
Israel’s Channel 2 news quoted unnamed officials in Jerusalem responding bitterly to the secretary’s remarks. Israel, said one official, would not “give in to the intimidation tactics” of the secretary, and would not compromise on its vital security needs. The official also reportedly noted that Kerry’s comments would not “encourage” the Palestinians to compromise.
Kerry made similar, but milder, comments at a press conference in Jordan, and also rejected suggestions that he scale back his ambition to forge a final settlement and instead seek an interim agreement. He said he still believed a full accord could be reached by an April 2014 target date.
“Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and [Palestinian Authority] President Abbas reaffirmed their commitment to these negotiations despite the fact that at moments there are obviously tensions over one happening or another or one place or another, whether it is in Israel or the territories,” Kerry said during a joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on Thursday.
“What is the alternative to peace?” Kerry asked. “Prolonged continued conflict. The absence of peace really means you have a sort of low-grade conflict, war.”
“As long as the aspirations of people are held down one way or another … as long as there is this conflict and if the conflict frustrates once again so that people cannot find a solution, the possibilities of violence” increase, he said.
Kerry has been shuffling this week between Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan in a frantic bid to get the peace negotiations back on track amid rising public anger among Palestinians over Israeli settlement activity and among Israelis over the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Kerry appealed for Israelis and Palestinians to take the peace process seriously and for their leaders to overcome differences that have hamstrung the talks since they began three months ago with the goal of reaching a deal by the end of April, 2014. He acknowledged the hurdles, but said he was convinced that both Netanyahu and Abbas were committed to the negotiations
“I am pleased to say that despite difficulties, and we all understand what they are, these discussions have been productive,” he said.
On Wednesday, Kerry said continued Israeli settlement building was “not helpful” and “illegitimate.”
After meeting with Abbas in Bethlehem, and in a bid to calm rising Palestinian anger at the PA president for a perceived acquiescence to Israeli settlements, Kerry flatly denied suggestions that Abbas had in any way agreed to “condone or accept” such activity as part of the deal to return to the talks.
“The Palestinians believe that the settlements are illegal, the United States continues to believe the settlements are not helpful and are illegitimate,” he said. Kerry added, “That is not to say that they were not aware or we were not aware that there would be construction but that that would be much better off in our judgment limited as much as possible.”
Earlier Thursday, Kerry told Jordan’s King Abdullah II that his meetings had “created some clarity on some of the points.”
He did not elaborate, but said at the news conference with Judeh that there was “significant progress in our discussions about a couple of areas of concern in the panorama of concerns that exist.”
A statement from Jordan’s Royal Palace said Abdullah, a close US Arab ally, said final status talks involve “higher Jordanian interest,” mainly a common border with a future Palestinian state, the fate of Jordan-based Palestinian refugees displaced in the 1967 Mideast war and Jerusalem, where the kingdom maintains custody over Christian and Muslim holy sites.
The king also called on the international community to help end unspecified “Israeli unilateral actions in the occupied Palestinian territories because they are illegal, illegitimate and constitute a real obstacle to peace efforts,” the statement said. He was referring to Israeli government plans to build more settlements in the West Bank.
Kerry will see Abbas again Thursday night in Amman and then return to Jerusalem on Friday for a third meeting with Netanyahu in two days before continuing with his swing through the Middle East and North Africa in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco.
Kerry brokered the re-start of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which began three months ago. But little progress has been made.
The secretary has been hit with complaints from both sides during his trip while working to maintain an optimistic tone. On Wednesday he noted that in any negotiation “there will be moments of up and moments of down.”
Tensions have been running high after Palestinians said a secret negotiating session on Tuesday broke down in a dispute over Israeli settlement construction.
Introducing Kerry in Bethlehem on Wednesday, the town’s mayor denounced settlements as a “siege” on Palestinian land and people; Netanyahu opened his first meeting with Kerry by bashing the Palestinians for their behavior in the peace talks.
The stalemate has prompted speculation that the US may need to increase its involvement in the talks and present its own outline for peace — or lower expectations and pursue a more limited, interim agreement.
Kerry rejected the idea of an interim agreement, saying it had been tried before and not worked.
“An interim agreement only if it embraces the concept of a final status might be a step on the way, but you cannot just do an interim agreement and pretend you are dealing with the problem,” he said. “We’ve been there before. We’ve had interim agreements, we’ve had roadmaps. But if you leave the main issues hanging out there, mischief-makers will make the most of that and bad things will happen in the interval that then make it even harder to get to the final status.”
“It is imperative that we keep final status and settle this before it can’t be settled because events on the ground or other events interfere with that possibility.”
The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war. They say they’re willing to adjust those borders to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements as part of a “land swap.”
Netanyahu opposes a withdrawal to Israel’s pre-1967 lines, saying such borders would be indefensible.
He has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they reject on the grounds that it would harm the rights of Israel’s Arab minority and Palestinian refugees who claim lost properties inside what is now Israel. Netanyahu also rejects shared control of east Jerusalem, home to key religious sites and the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.