US official: Kerry’s speech signaled several ‘gains’ for Israel
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US official: Kerry’s speech signaled several ‘gains’ for Israel

Arab endorsements of secretary’s call for recognition of Jewish state are ‘quite unprecedented,’ senior source says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at the U.S. Department of State on December 28, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at the U.S. Department of State on December 28, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while harshly critical of the settlements, contained many “gains” for Jerusalem, a senior US official said Thursday.

Kerry devoted a large segment of his 73-minute speech last week to justifying Washington’s abstention that facilitated passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution that strongly denounced the settlements, but also laid out six “principles” he said could serve as a basis for future negotiations.

“There’s a lot in these principles that Israel can perceive as gains, or wins,” the US official told Israeli journalists, speaking on condition of anonymity. “For instance, they contain a clear statement that Israel is a Jewish state and that a recognition of Israel’s status as a Jewish state should be part of these principles.”

Many Arab governments “endorsed” Kerry’s blueprint, despite being fully aware that it included a clear call for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the official added.

Israel can further note with satisfaction that Kerry’s outline calls for a “realistic solution” to the refugee problem that is consistent with the principle of two states for two peoples; in other words, that would ensure that the Palestinians cannot flood Israel with refugees.

“Secretary Kerry’s principles called for an arrangement that would not harm Israel’s status as a Jewish state,” the official said. “It’s quite unprecedented to have an Arab government endorse something like that.”

Furthermore, he stressed Kerry’s principle that “Israel must be able to defend itself effectively, including against terrorism and other regional threats.”

“The fact that many Arab governments endorse these principles and these outcomes is a very positive development from an Israeli perspective, even though there are other issues that the current Israeli government is less happy with,” the official said.

Kerry’s presentation, which was harshly criticized by Israeli leaders as unfairly and unproductively focused on settlements while woefully trivializing Palestinian wrongdoing, could be a “very valuable and important contribution to shaping what we will hope will be future negotiation,” he said.

As Kerry laid out his six principles as “a possible basis for serious negotiations” last Wednesday in the State Department, he endorsed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“This has been the foundational principle of the two-state solution from the beginning: creating a state for the Jewish people and a state for the Palestinian people, where each can achieve their national aspirations,” Kerry said.

No other outline of parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace endorsed by any government have ever included the demand that Israel be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Washington itself has long recognized Israel as a Jewish state, as have Germany and Canada, but the rest of the international community has so far dismissed Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be defined along what it considers religious lines.

However, Kerry said that he was “absolutely convinced that many others are now prepared to accept it as well — provided the need for a Palestinian state is also addressed.”

The reactions of many Arab states appear to prove him right. In the days after the speech, many Arab and Muslim states signaled their approval of the six “principles” he proposed as a blueprint for a future peace agreement, including the Jewish state recognition and his proposed solution for refugees.

Kerry said that the refugees’ “needs have to be addressed” and that Israel would have to acknowledge “their suffering.” At the same time, he said that any solution “must be consistent with two states for two peoples, and cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel.”

Egypt said Kerry’s guidelines “are mostly consistent with the international consensus and the Egyptian vision.” Jordan said they are “in line with” the government’s longstanding position. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, in separate statements, “welcomed” them. Turkey called them “important within the context of the revitalization of the peace process on the basis of the two-state solution.” Saudi Arabia said Kerry’s “recommendations are in agreement with the majority of legitimate international decisions… and form a suitable ground to reach a final solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Briefing Israeli journalists on Wednesday, the US official said that despite the bitter disagreement between Jerusalem and the outgoing administration, it was important to note that the last eight years were fruitful ones for bilateral cooperation.

“The relationship between Israel and the US has been expanded and deepened and strengthened in ways that may not yet be fully appreciated in the moment and may only fully be appreciated in retrospect,” he said.

One example he cited was US support for Israeli anti-missile systems, saying that when President Barack Obama took office, not a single dollar had been committed to Iron Dome.

“We’re now at over a billion dollars and several batteries with countless interceptions that saved many lives. That’s one direct, very tangible and very meaningful outcome of partnership during the terms of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

The economic partnership between the two countries has grown by 40 percent over the last eight years, the US official continued, “and I’m convinced we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible in the future.”

On December 23, the Security Council passed resolution 2334, which declared Israeli settlement outside the pre-1967 lines as having “no legal validity” and constituting “a flagrant violation under international law.” Fourteen of 15 member states voted in favor of the text. The US abstained, allowing the resolution to pass.

Israeli officials, led by Netanyahu, have since claimed to have “ironclad evidence” that the Obama administration drafted and pushed the resolution in a last-minute slap for the Israeli government. The White House denies the allegations.

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