WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s candidate for US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said Wednesday the United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned settlements as illegal was “not helpful” and “actually undermines setting a good set of conditions for talks to continue” between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the former ExxonMobil CEO pledged to restore the US-Israel relationship after eight years of tumultuous ties between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In December, the Obama administration abstained from voting on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, allowing it to pass. The measure criticized settlements as a violation of international law and obstacle to reaching a two-state deal, drawing a furious response from Israel.
Tillerson also took issue with Secretary of State John Kerry for his speech a few days after the vote, in which he laid out the reasoning behind the administration’s decision, outlined his vision for achieving peace between the sides and skewered the settlements.
Taking the step of directly criticizing his predecessor, should he be confirmed, the Texas native said: “The secretary’s speech, which followed that UN resolution, I found quite troubling because of the attacks on Israel and in many ways undermining the government of Israel itself in terms of its own legitimacy and the talks.”
Kerry’s speech, given at the State Department, warned Israel against the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, implying its future as a Jewish and democratic state was at risk if it did not change its current policies.
“If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both,” he said. “And it won’t ever really be at peace.”
Speaking to a delegation of senators who are uniformly supportive of Israel, and who are planning to vote soon on a resolution condemning the Security Council motion the Obama administration supported, Tillerson spoke of his desire to improve bilateral relations between Washington and Jerusalem.
“Israel is, has always been and remains our most important ally in the region,” he said. “I think in the Trump administration, the president-elect already made it clear and, if I’m confirmed, I agree entirely and will support [Israel].”
“We have to recommit … that we’re going to meet our obligations to Israel as our most important strategic parter in the region,” he added.
As former oil executive, Tillerson spent his career fostering deep ties to Sunni Arab and Gulf states. And since rising to the top at one of the world’s largest companies in January 2006, much of his professional life has involved working with Israel’s petroleum-rich neighbors — but not Israel itself.
Without Tillerson having made any previous public statements about his positions on Israel or the US-Israel relationship, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin (D) asked the nominee in his opening statement to flesh those views out during the confirmation proceedings.
During the hearings, Tillerson also expressed concerns about the Iran nuclear deal, specifically that he believed it did not prevent the Iranian regime from purchasing a nuclear weapon, only from developing one.
The text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — as the deal is formally known — states that Tehran “reaffirms that under no circumstance will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Calling for a “full review” of the agreement once the Trump administration takes the helm, Tillerson said the United States should enforce a policy that ensures Iran cannot enrich uranium.
“The real important question is what comes at the end of the agreement,” he said. “And what comes at the end of this agreement must be a mechanism that does, in fact, deny Iran the ability to develop a nuclear weapon. That means no uranium enrichment in Iran.”
The United States had previously held that posture but made a shift during the negotiations of the nuclear accord, which allows the Islamic Republic to enrich up to 3.67% of uranium for 15 years and only for peaceful purposes.