Secretary of State, John Kerry (L) pictured with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has called for an end to all illegal Israeli Settlement construction and land swaps that recognise the pre-1967 border (Photo: US Department of State/CC)
On December 28, President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, delivered a historic speech in Washington on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for an end to all Settlement construction, land swaps that recognised the pre-1967 borders and the creation of a “viable and contiguous Palestinian state”. He laid out these principles for a two-state solution based on the Oslo Accords of 1993.
In his speech, Kerry set out his vision for a peaceful Middle East where a Palestinian economy would have “amazing potential in the context of independence, with major private sector investment possibilities and a talented young workforce” and Israel’s economy would take “advantage of its unparalleled culture of innovation and trading opportunities with new Arab partners.”
However, not everyone appreciated his hopeful tone. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded by accusing Kerry of “passionately condemning a policy of enabling Jews to live in their historic homeland, in their eternal capital, Jerusalem.” This was because Kerry had called for an end to illegal settlement building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
More than 500,000 Israelis live in about 140 settlements built since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Kerry outlined the full extent of the problem of settlement construction: “I don’t think most people in Israel – and certainly in the world – have any idea how broad and systematic this process has become. The facts speak for themselves. The number of settlers in the roughly 130 Israeli settlements east of the 1967 lines has steadily grown. The settler population in the West Bank alone – not including East Jerusalem – has increased by nearly 270,000 since Oslo, including 100,000 just since 2009 when President Obama’s term began. And there is no point pretending they’re just in large settlement blocs: nearly 90,000 settlers are living east of the separation barrier that was created by Israel itself, in the middle of what by any reasonable definition would be the future Palestinian state.”
The campaign for one Jewish state
Kerry’s speech exposed the problem of settler outposts that are illegal under Israel’s own laws. There are over 100 of these outposts often located on private Palestinian land and “strategically placed to make two states impossible.” The troubling reality is that around 30 percent of them have been, or are in the process of being, legalised. Leaders of the settler movement have advanced unprecedented new legislation that would legalise most of the outposts. Even the Israeli Attorney General has said the draft law is unconstitutional and a violation of international law.
Kerry noted that: “60% of the West Bank known as Area C – much of which was supposed to be transferred to Palestinian control long ago under the Oslo accords – is effectively off limits to Palestinian development…Israeli farms flourish in the Jordan River Valley and Israeli resorts line the shores of the Dead Sea – where Palestinian development is not allowed. In fact, almost no private Palestinian building is approved in Area C at all – only one permit was issued by Israel in all of 2014 and 2015, while approvals for hundreds of settlement units were advanced during that same period. Moreover, Palestinian structures in Area C that do not have a permit from the Israeli military are potentially subject to demolition. And they are currently being demolished at historically high rates: over 1,300 Palestinians, including over 600 children, have been displaced in 2016 alone – more than any previous year.”
He noted this is all part of a movement to create one Jewish state, without a Palestinian neighbour. Speaking of the hardline settler movement in Israel, Kerry noted: “They believe in one state: greater Israel. In fact, one prominent minister who heads a pro-settler party declared just after the US election that “the era of the two state solution is over,” and many other coalition ministers publicly reject a Palestinian state. And they are increasingly getting their way, with plans for hundreds of new units in East Jerusalem recently announced and talk of a major new settlement building effort in the West Bank to follow.”
This is why on December 23 Obama decided to have the US abstain from a United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, which allowed the measure to pass. “We may not be able to stop them, but we cannot be expected to defend them,” said Kerry.
‘Friends need to tell each other the hard truths’
As Israel’s closest ally the US could only abstain from the vote to make its position clear. Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, who does not support a two-state solution, said after the vote: “It was to be expected that Israel’s greatest ally would act in accordance with the values that we share” and veto this resolution. Netanyahu said, “friends don’t take friends to the Security Council”. Kerry’s response was “friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
In his speech, Kerry pointed out that previous US Administrations of both political parties have allowed resolutions that were critical of Israel to pass, including under George W Bush and Ronald Regan and every US administration since 1967 – along with the entire international community – has recognized East Jerusalem as among the territories that Israel occupied in the Six-Day War. However, the vote still angered Israeli leaders, who accused senior US officials of complicity in drafting the resolution, with Netanyahu accusing the US of stabbing Israel in the back.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, responded to Kerry’s speech by calling on Israel to freeze housing construction in order to restart negotiations. “The minute the Israeli Government agrees to cease all settlement activities, including in and around occupied East Jerusalem, and agree to implement the signed agreements on the basis of mutual reciprocity, the Palestinian leadership stands ready to resume permanent status negotiations,” he said.
In the UK, Number 10 responded critically to Kerry’s speech, saying it focused too much on settlements. A statement from Spokesperson of Prime Minister, Theresa May, stated that the UK did not “believe that the way to negotiate peace is by focusing on only one issue, in this case, the construction of settlements, when clearly the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so deeply complex.”
“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, ” said statement from Kerry.
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.”
President-elect Donald Trump rejected Kerry’s speech before it was even delivered while on holiday in Palm Beach, Florida. He tweeted: “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Trump has nominated a new American ambassador, David M Friedman, who is strongly opposed to a two-state solution. Friedman is also President of the American fund-raising arm for a Yeshiva in a settlement deep in the West Bank. Kerry made it clear in his speech that continued settlement activity would make a two-state solution impossible: “It is vital that we all work to keep open the possibility of peace, that we not lose hope in the two-state solution, no matter how difficult it may seem – because there really is no viable alternative.”