Israelis won't miss being lectured by Obama and Kerry: Derek Stoffel

Many Israelis have grown tired of the finger wagging that has come to characterize the relationship between the Obama administration and Israel, writes Derek Stoffel.

Diplomatic disagreement over settlements ratchets up tension between U.S. and Israel

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concludes his remarks on Middle East peace at the Department of State in Washington December 28, 2016. (Reuters)

Many Israelis have wondered why John Kerry cares so much about them. Why is the U.S. secretary of state so focused on the long-running, seemingly intractable conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

A few years ago, a former Israeli defence minister sounded off on the topic, reportedly saying Kerry was "obsessive and messianic." 

Over the last few years, residents In Tel Aviv reading the morning newspaper along the city's famous beaches would sometimes scratch their heads and wonder why Kerry was back in Jerusalem or Ramallah again. And why didn't he take this last week off, as so many do between Christmas and New Year's?

Instead, he gave a blistering 72-minute long speech at the State Department on Wednesday, railing against the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, specifically his support of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Many Israelis have complained that for much of Obama's presidency, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel consists of little more than finger-waving from Washington, with Kerry's speech amplifying those concerns.

"I think the biggest problem that Israel is going to have with this is the underlying assumption, which wasn't so subtle, that the secretary of state and his administration know far better what is in Israel's interest than the people of Israel," said Michael Oren, Israel's deputy minister for diplomacy and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. 

'Hard truths'

Kerry said he was acting to save Israel from "the most extreme elements" in its own government. This is why, he said, the United States chose to abstain from last week's vote at the United Nations Security Council that condemned Israeli settlements.

"Some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles, even after urging again and again that the policy must change," Kerry said. "Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts to John Kerry's address from his office in Jerusalem. (Reuters)

In Jerusalem, it's clear Netanyahu has already ended his relationship with Kerry and his boss, President Barack Obama, and has cast his eyes forward.

"I have no doubt that our alliance will endure the profound disagreement we have had with the Obama administration and will become even stronger in the future," Netanyahu said. "Israel looks forward to working with President-elect Trump and with the American Congress."

It's well known that the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been testy and tense over the years. But the flap over the U.N. resolution marks what is perhaps one of the lowest points in the relationship between the two countries.

What lies at the centre of the diplomatic dispute between these two close allies is housing.

About 500,000 Israelis live in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. In his speech Wednesday, Kerry said the number of settlers has increased by 100,000 since Obama took office in 2009.

Most of the international community, including Canada, views the settlements as illegal under international law, although this is disputed by the Israelis.

Obstacles to peace

Palestinians who live in the West Bank look out across the land that could one day serve as the foundation of their own state and angrily complain that with every new housing unit, the chances of a two-state solution diminish.

"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," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

About half a million Israelis live in settlements, including Ma'ale Adumim, in the occupied West Bank. (Reuters)

Netanyahu took issue with Kerry's focus on the settlement issue and "blaming Israel for the lack of peace by passionately condemning a policy of enabling Jews to live in their historic homeland and in their eternal capital, Jerusalem."

Israel's leadership sees the impediments to peace much differently. They point to the continued attacks carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, and accuse Palestinian leaders of inciting the violence.

Kerry did offer a condemnation on these issues in his speech, but Israeli politicians see his remarks as a one-sided attack aimed squarely at Israel.

They also dismiss it all as mere words from a man who is about to lose his job.

"There are no major surprises," in Kerry's address, said Michael Herzog, a member of Israel's negotiating team during the last round of peace talks in 2014, in a conference call with reporters. "The question is, does it really matter? I think now laying out these parameters as the administration is about to depart the scene… I don't think it matters much."

'The era of the Palestinian state is over'

When it comes to a Trump presidency, there are members of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government who are rubbing their hands together in glee. The morning after Trump's election, Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett exclaimed that "the era of the Palestinian state is over."

To the alarm of the Palestinians, Trump has nominated David Friedman, a pro-settler lawyer with no diplomatic experience, as his ambassador to Israel.

"We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect," Trump tweeted after Kerry's speech. "They used to have a great friend in the U.S. Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!"


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.