Israeli prime minister calls Kerry's Middle East policy speech 'a great disappointment'

Benjamin Netanyahu says John Kerry's speech warning that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in jeopardy blamed Israel while paying "lip service" to Palestinian attacks.

'Israel's hand has been extended in peace to its neighbours from Day 1,' Netanyahu says

Israeli prime minister says U.S. secretary of state's speech 'biased' against Israel 1:20

Israel's prime minister is calling U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Mideast peace policy speech a "great disappointment."

In a live broadcast in both Hebrew and English on Israeli TV, Benjamin Netanyahu accused Kerry of focusing heavily on Israeli settlements, while paying little attention to Palestinian incitement and violence.

"Secretary Kerry paid lip service to the unremitting campaign of terrorism that has been waged by the Palestinians against the Jewish state for nearly a century," Netanyahu said in English.

If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic; it cannot be both, and it won't ever really be at peace.- John Kerry , U.S. Secretary of State

"What he did was to spend most of his speech 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."

In his speech at the U.S. State Department earlier on Wednesday, Kerry warned that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "in serious jeopardy." 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the U.S. decision to allow the passage of a UN resolution last week demanding an end to Israeli settlements, saying it was intended to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Just weeks before the Obama administration hands over power to president-elect Donald Trump, Kerry defended the U.S. decision to allow for the passage of a United Nations resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, saying it was intended to preserve the possibility of the two-state solution.

"We cannot, in good conscience, do nothing, and say nothing, when we see the hope of peace slipping away," Kerry said.

"The truth is that trends on the ground — violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation — are destroying hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want."

Kerry, pushing back at Israel's fury over the U.S. abstention on the United Nations vote, questioned Netanyahu's commitment to Palestinian statehood, which has formed the basis for all serious peace talks for years.

Though Netanyahu says he believes in the two-state solution, Kerry said, under his leadership Israel's government is "the most right-wing in Israel's history."

"If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic; it cannot be both, and it won't ever really be at peace," Kerry said in a farewell speech, a comprehensive airing of grievances that have built up in the Obama administration over eight years but were rarely, until this month, discussed publicly.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump tweeted, 'Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!,' citing the day he takes office. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

But Netanyahu emphasized his country's desire for peace with the Palestinians, saying it would only happen through "direct negotiations." 

"Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders," he said. "Israel's hand has been extended in peace to its neighbours from day one, from its very first day. We've prayed for peace. We've worked for it every day since then."

Palestinian president responds 

In response to Kerry's speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he is ready to resume peace talks with Israel if it halts settlement construction.

Abbas said Wednesday any talks would take place "within a specific time frame and on the basis of international law." He said that would include a reference to the UN Security Council resolution passed last week, over Israel's objections.  

Abbas' comments reiterated long-standing Palestinian positions and did not address the six principles for peace Kerry outlined in his speech.

The Palestinians object to calls to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jews, saying it would undermine the rights of Israel's Arab minority and the claims of Palestinian refugees whose families lost properties in what is now Israel.

Trump urges Israel to 'stay strong' 

The extraordinary display of discord between allies — with U.S. and Israeli officials openly disparaging each other — has also pitted President Barack Obama against Trump, who has firmly taken Netanyahu's side.

Trump on Wednesday chided the Obama administration for its stance toward Israel. 

Trump, who has vowed to pursue more pro-Israeli policies, had urged the United States to veto the UN vote.

"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 …," Trump, a Republican, wrote on Twitter.

In another tweet, he said, referring to when he takes over at the White House, "not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!" 

Israel postpones vote

Israel pulled back from approving hundreds of new homes for Israelis in East Jerusalem on Wednesday before Kerry was set to speak.

The housing projects, in areas Israel captured in the 1967 war and which Palestinians seek as part of a future state, are part of building activity that the Security Council, by a vote of 14-0, demanded be halted.

With applications for 492 building permits in the urban settlements of Ramot and Ramat Shlomo on its agenda, members of Jerusalem city hall's Planning and Building committee said a planned vote was cancelled at Netanyahu's request.

The panel's chairman, Meir Turgeman, said at the session that Netanyahu was concerned approval would have given Kerry "ammunition before the speech."

A spokesman for the Israeli leader declined immediate comment.

Peace talks stalled since 2014

Kerry's parting words are unlikely to change anything on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians or salvage the Obama administration's record of failed Mideast peace efforts.

Obama and Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship, divided over the decades-old Israeli policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied territory as well as on how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Washington considers the settlement activity illegitimate and most countries view it as an obstacle to peace.

Israel disagrees, citing a biblical, historical and political connection to the land — which the Palestinians also claim — as well as security interests.

Some 570,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid mounting international concern that a two-state solution to the dispute is in jeopardy, with peace talks stalled since 2014.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is disappointed with Kerry's speech on Wednesday, saying that it was 'almost as unbalanced' as the UN resolution. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Netanyahu's aides are confident Trump's incoming administration will likely ignore any Obama principles and pay no heed to the UN resolution. But they fear Kerry's remarks will put Israel on the defensive and prompt other countries to apply pressure.

Trump has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital — a status that is not recognized internationally. And he has appointed his lawyer, who has raised funds for a major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as the new ambassador.

"Who's Obama? He's history," Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said on Army Radio on Wednesday.

With files from Reuters