In this Sept. 30 photo, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk during the funeral of former Israeli President and Prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. (Menahem Kahana, Pool via AP, File)

In this Sept. 30 photo, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk during the funeral of former Israeli President and Prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. (Menahem Kahana, Pool via AP, File)

Netanyahu looks for fresh start with Trump after Obama years

By Michael S. Arnold, Chris Strohm and David Wainer


Strained U.S.-Israeli ties reached another low as Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded blame over the stalled Middle East peace process, with President-elect Donald Trump vowing a fresh start when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Kerry, in a speech Wednesday in Washington, said Netanyahu’s policies backing the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank were putting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly out of reach.

“If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, but it cannot be both,” Kerry said. He went on to call Netanyahu’s government “the most right-wing in Israeli history.”

Netanyahu, minutes later, accused Kerry of anti-Israel bias and said the U.S. focus on settlements was “unbalanced.”

“This conflict is and always has been about Israel’s very right to exist,” Netanyahu said. “How can you make peace with someone who rejects your very existence?”

With barely three weeks remaining in the Obama administration, Netanyahu and Trump are already showing their eagerness to engage in a more cooperative relationship. The president-elect has criticized Obama over his decision not to veto a U.N. resolution last week criticizing Israeli settlements and vowed stronger ties with the country after he takes office. His pick for ambassador to Israel, attorney David Friedman, is a firm supporter of the settlements.

Kerry in his speech laid out what he described as core principles to reaching an agreement. They include one Jewish and one Arab state, whose borders will be based on the 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps; Jerusalem as the capital of both states, with free access to holy sites; compensation and assistance for Palestinian refugees, who would be given “options” of where to settle but whose ultimate destination could not disrupt Israel’s demographic character; and an end to all outstanding claims.

The speech came as Israel faces increasing international isolation over Netanyahu’s policies. France is gathering dozens of foreign ministers in Paris on Jan. 15 to discuss the conflict. Israeli officials say that may result in a proposal they view as unfavorable, which could then be taken to the U.N. for a seal of approval.

Netanyahu reiterated claims that the U.S. pushed the U.N. resolution behind the scenes, breaking a commitment to shield Israel from conditions imposed by the U.N. He said he will share evidence of that collusion with the incoming Trump team. Kerry rejected the accusation.

Obama and Netanyahu never managed to build strong personal ties even as their governments cooperated on a range of military, intelligence and commercial issues. Obama was highly critical of Israel’s settlements from the moment he entered office, and clashed with Israel over a nuclear accord with Iran last year. As that agreement was finalized, Netanyahu, without informing the White House, accepted an invitation to address a joint session of Congress to lobby against the proposal.

Nevertheless, Kerry emphasized the Obama administration’s backing for Israel. He singled out a decade-long defense agreement with the U.S., valued at about $38 billion, signed earlier this year, saying “Time and again we have demonstrated that we have Israel’s back.”

The expansion of settlements, including in areas far from Israel’s pre-1967 borders, means the prospects for a diplomatic solution are being “narrowed,” Kerry said, adding that “The settler agenda is defining the future.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party opposes a Palestinian state, has called for Israel to annex large swathes of the West Bank. The morning after Kerry’s speech, Bennett told Israeli website Ynet that when U.S. President-elect Donald Trump enters the White House, “Palestine will be taken off the agenda,” advocating instead that Israeli law “be imposed on areas in Judea and Samaria,” the historical Jewish names for the West Bank.

On Thursday, Netanyahu sought to de-escalate the tension with the U.S. government, saying “the alliance between our countries is strong, even when there are disagreements between us.”

“I am grateful to the American people, to Congress and to the American government for defense aid to Israel,” he said at a graduation ceremony for Israeli Air Force pilots. Still, he insisted Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is a “relatively marginal issue” amid widespread bloodshed and chaos in the Middle East.

Kerry’s speech, delivered in the waning days of the Obama administration, and two years after disagreement over the settlements issue helped scuttle the last round of peace talks, ultimately may have little impact. The direct criticisms of Netanyahu “were quite strong and seemed sometimes to be personal,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. But ultimately, he added, “it’s going to be quickly forgotten.”

Kerry also assailed leaders of the mainstream Palestinian Fatah Party for failing to condemn specific terrorist acts against Israel and for instead naming public streets and squares after terrorists.

“There is absolutely no justification for terrorism and there never will be,” he said.

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog offered support for Kerry’s comments, saying in a tweet that the speech “expresses true concerns about Israel’s wellbeing & future.”

Sandler said Netanyahu remains under pressure domestically to respond to the UN vote with a wave of new building.

“No matter what, he has to wait for the Trump administration before doing anything substantial in the settlements,” Sandler said.

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