The outgoing Obama administration and the British government of Theresa May are engaged in an unprecedented war of words over Secretary of State John Kerry’s blistering critique of Israeli settlements.
Britain voted in favor of last Friday’s UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned settlements as illegal and called for a halt in all settlement activity, while the US abstained. But a spokesman for May, who has expressed robust support for Israel in a series of recent speeches and messages, on Thursday castigated Kerry’s subsequent speech, accusing him of a wrong-headed approach and of being unfair to Israel.
In his address Wednesday, Kerry defended America’s decision not to veto the resolution and focused overwhelmingly on settlements as a central cause of the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He warned that Israel’s agenda was being set by extremists, criticized the composition of Israel’s government, and declared that the future of a two-state solution was being jeopardized by Israeli policy.
Hours after Britain issued its rebuke, the State Department hit back furiously, denying that Kerry’s speech was unfair, hailing the support the secretary had received from other leaders, and implying that Britain was behaving hypocritically.
The diplomatic tussle is highly unusual between the US and UK, and Britain’s decision to attack Kerry for ostensible unfairness to Israel is still more extraordinary, echoing as it does the criticisms of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
May’s spokesman on Thursday rebuked Kerry for what it said was his speech’s singular focus on the settlements as a major impediment to reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and his commentary on the more right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition, whom Kerry accused of dragging Israel into more extreme positions.
According to the UK’s Jewish News website, a spokesperson for May said: “We do not believe that the way to negotiate peace is by focusing on only one issue, in this cases the construction of settlements, when clearly the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so deeply complex.
“And we do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” the prime minister’s spokesman added. “The Government believes that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.”
The Guardian further quoted May’s spokesman saying: “We continue to believe that the construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is illegal, which is why we supported UN security council resolution 2334 last week. But we are also clear that the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict. In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long.”
The US State Department hit back in bitter language of its own, denying that Kerry had been unfair to Israel, and implicitly accusing the UK of being hypocritical in voting for the UN resolution and then criticizing the secretary. “We are surprised by the UK Prime Minister’s office statement given that Secretary Kerry’s remarks — which covered the full range of threats to a two state solution, including terrorism, violence, incitement and settlements — were in-line with the UK’s own longstanding policy and its vote at the United Nations last week,” a State Department statement said.
Plainly branding Britain as an isolated voice of dissent, the statement also said: “We are grateful for the strongly supportive statements in response to Secretary Kerry’s speech from across the world, including Germany, France, Canada, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others.”
Reuters noted that May’s critique moves British policy closer to President-elect Donald Trump than its other European allies such as Germany and France, pointing out that “Trump has denounced the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel and promised to change course when he is sworn in on Jan. 20.”
“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the US, but not anymore,” Trump said in a series of tweets on Wednesday, just before Kerry spoke. “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Along with the UK’s objections to Kerry’s speech, Australia has condemned the UN resolution as one-sided and “deeply unsettling.” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made plain that Australia would not have voted for Resolution 2334, and pledged support for Israel, “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Laying out his “comprehensive vision” for the future of Middle East peacemaking, Kerry on Wednesday said that a two-state solution was the “only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” but promising that the US would not seek further UN action on the conflict.
In a speech that lasted well over an hour, Kerry described settlements as a central obstacle to achieving an agreement and declared that Israeli actions in the West Bank were putting the two-state solution — which he said was the sole path to peace — “in serious jeopardy.”
Kerry argued that settlement construction in the West Bank was being “strategically placed in locations that make two states impossible” and said the “the status quo is leading toward one state, or perpetual occupation.”
Settlement expansion, he declared, “has nothing to do with Israel’s security.”
Castigating the Netanyahu coalition, Kerry said it was “the most right-wing in Israel history with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements. The result is that policies of this government, which the prime minister himself just described as more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history, are leading … towards one state. In fact,” he added, “Israel has increasingly consolidated control over much of the West Bank for its own purposes.”
Netanyahu responded furiously to the speech Wednesday night, delivering a heated statement in English in which he accused Kerry of ignoring Palestinian terrorism in order to attack Israel.
“In a speech ostensibly about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary Kerry paid lip service to the unremitting campaign of terrorism that has been waged by the Palestinians against the Jewish state for nearly a century,” Netanyahu said.
“What he did was to spend most of his speech blaming Israel for the lack of peace by passionately condemning a policy of enabling Jews to live in their historic homeland and in their eternal capital, Jerusalem,” the prime minister said.