(December 30, 2016 / JNS) The timing of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s so-called farewell speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to stem largely from “personal animosity” between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the address obsessively focused on Israeli settlements while ignoring illegal Palestinian building in the West Bank, experts said.
“It’s unclear why the Obama administration thought this would be a good time for such a speech,” Mideast expert Oren Kessler, the deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told JNS.org.
Kerry’s speech came just days after one of the lowest points in U.S.-Israel relations in decades Dec. 23, when the Obama administration abstained from a United Nations Security Council condemning Israel’s settlement policy, breaking from the longstanding American policy of vetoing one-sided U.N. measures targeting Israel.
“Like that abstention, Kerry’s address reflects this administration’s tendency to place posturing over policy on critical Middle East issues,” said Kessler, who described that the speech indicated Obama’s “apparent desire to land a final blow before leaving office.”
At the same time, questions have arisen over why the speech was delivered by the secretary of state rather than Obama himself, like former presidents might have done.
Kessler speculated that Obama may have wanted to distance himself from the speech in order to avoid tarnishing his legacy on Israel.
“If that was the intention, it’s unlikely to bear fruit, as it’s clear to all that this Security Council abstention, and Kerry’s speech, are expressions of the president’s own views,” said Kessler.
Kerry may have been motivated by concern over President-elect Donald Trump’s positions on Israel. Trump, based on his comments on the issue to date, does not share the current administration’s concern over Israel’s settlement policy.
“Kerry indicated in the speech that he is concerned by some remarks on Israel coming from the circle of President-elect Donald Trump,” Kessler said. “Kerry apparently wanted to put a U.N. Security Council resolution on the books before Trump enters office, and before his administration makes moves on Israel that the current administration deems harmful to the prospect for peace.”
‘Obsession’ with ‘settlements,’ though not defined
“It’s ironic that Kerry said at the start of his remarks that settlements are not ‘the whole or even the primary cause of the conflict,’ and then proceeded to speak for over an hour, mainly on the settlements,” Kessler noted.
Referring to Judea and Samaria as “Palestinian territory,” Kerry warned in his speech that “the status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation,” referring to Israel’s continued settlement construction. “The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution, but his current coalition is the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme element,” said Kerry.
Indeed, within his 72-minute speech Kerry said the words “settlements” or “settlers” 62 times, while only mentioning “terror” or “terrorism” 14 times and “Palestinian terror” not at all.
Further, Kerry used the term “settlements” in a general sense, failing to draw a distinction between the Jewish holy sites, well-established Jewish neighborhoods in the middle of densely populated Jewish areas and remote outposts.
Even British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose government voted in favor of the Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, criticized Kerry for disproportionately focusing on settlements in his speech.
“We do 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 the Palestinians is so deeply complex,” a spokesman for May said Thursday.
Longstanding U.S. policy has been to describe as “unhelpful” any Israeli settlement building beyond the 1967 lines—territorial parameters encompassing the holy sites in eastern Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. The Oslo Agreements of 1993, however, which are the current basis for peace talks between Israel and the Arabs, intentionally make no reference to “settlements” or any requirement that Israel cease building them.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has been almost obsessively focused, experts say, on any building by Israel beyond the 1967 lines—regardless of the location—during the last several years.
Shortly after taking office, President Obama pressured Israel to introduce a moratorium on settlement construction across the 1967 lines, even in dense Jewish neighborhoods, in order to spur Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obliged, issuing a 10-month halt on construction in 2010 that ended in no meaningful negotiations.
Additionally, experts note that during the Obama years, the president has remained silent on the illegal Palestinian construction that has boomed in the West Bank.
“Secretary Kerry put Israeli construction under a microscope, but made no mention of vast Palestinian construction throughout the West Bank,” Alex Safian, associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), told JNS.org. “Is this because the administration considers the West Bank to be exclusively Palestinian? If so, this is another break with the longstanding U.S. position that borders are a final status issue that must be decided in direct negotiations between the parties.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told JNS.org regarding Kerry’s heavy focus on Israeli settlements, “The laser-like international focus—now including the U.S. government—on Jewish residences on the West Bank, ignoring so many larger and more egregious problems (such as the Turks in Cyprus or the Chinese in Tibet) always has one main reason: The deep-seated belief in ‘linkage,’ the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to problems racking the entire Middle East. Once one believes that absurdity, it makes perfect sense to obsess over the building of a new verandah.”
Along the same lines, Kessler believes the Obama administration’s “obsession” with settlements “stems from both a double standard—good behavior is expected from Israel, but not so much from the Palestinians—and the low-hanging fruit effect, [that] settlements are, for some reason, deemed a more manageable problem than, say, Palestinian intransigence,” he said.
Within the Arab world, there have also been questions over the timing of Kerry’s speech despite Arab leaders’ praise for the address.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judah called Kerry’s speech “impartial” and “well laid out” on Twitter. Similarly, in a statement issued through its official state news agency, Saudi Arabia said it “welcomed the proposals” by Kerry, adding that they were in accordance “with the majority of the resolutions of international legality and most of the elements of the Arab Peace Initiative.” Official statements by Qatar and Egypt echoed that of Saudi Arabia.
“Arab observers know that the Obama administration has just a few weeks left, and they know President-elect Trump will almost certainly take a more Israel-friendly approach than his predecessor,” Kessler said.
Obama administration’s legacy
With only a few weeks left in Obama’s presidency, Kessler called it “remarkable that Secretary Kerry and President Obama would leave this as the cap on their Israel legacy, given the eight years of acrimony between Obama and Netanyahu and the fact that Washington pushed through an Iran deal that Jerusalem vehemently opposed.”
President-elect Trump, meanwhile, has made it clear that things will change come inauguration day.
“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore. The beginning o the end was the horrible Iran deal, now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” he tweeted.
As such, the parting shots by Obama and Kerry likely means that Trump will need to do little to appear as a strong friend of Israel.
“More than anything, this Security Council abstention and Kerry’s address are a gift to Donald Trump,” Kessler told JNS.org. “By simply pursuing standard U.S. policy—namely vetoing biased resolutions at the UN and refraining from excessive public criticism of Israel—he can appear to be a steadfast friend of the Jewish state by hardly doing a thing.”
—With reporting by Karen McDonough