Kerry Plans Middle East Speech as Israel Retaliates Over UN Snub

  • Speech follows U.S. absention on UN Security Council Vote
  • Paris conference in January could ramp up pressure on Israel

Kerry: Friends Need to Tell Each Other the Hard Truth

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will offer a “comprehensive vision” for how Middle East peace can be achieved in a speech Wednesday in Washington, as Israel steps up its response to a censure from the United Nations over the construction of settlements in the West Bank.

With barely three weeks left in the Obama administration, Kerry will lay out his plan as tensions over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies threaten to leave Israel more isolated internationally. Along with the Kerry speech, France is gathering dozens of foreign ministers in Paris on Jan. 15 to discuss the conflict. Israeli officials say that could result in a proposal they view as unfavorable, which may then be taken to the UN for a seal of approval.

The U.S. last week broke with tradition and decided not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning the West Bank settlements. Israel has already moved to limit ties with countries that voted for the resolution, rebuked member states’ representatives, recalled ambassadors from co-sponsors New Zealand and Senegal and pledged to cut off nearly $8 million in funding to UN institutions.

Kerry, describing himself as a “lifelong friend of Israel,” defended the U.S. decision to abstain on the vote in a Dec. 23 statement, warning that the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is now in jeopardy, with terrorism, violence and incitement continuing and unprecedented steps to expand settlements being advanced by avowed opponents of the two state solution.”

‘Possibility of Peace’

“That is why we cannot in good conscience stand in the way of a resolution at the United Nations that makes clear that both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace,” Kerry said.

Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Netanyahu is under pressure to respond to the UN vote with a wave of new construction. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party opposes a Palestinian state, has called for Israel to annex large swathes of the West Bank, though Netanyahu has ordered Cabinet members to cease all talk of annexation for now.

“He’s under pressure from Bennett to build, but if he’s going to build it has to be limited,” Sandler said. “No matter what, he has to wait for the Trump administration before doing anything substantial in the settlements. He’s aware that Kerry’s speech is coming up, the Paris conference is coming up and Obama still has ways to hurt him.”

Apartment Construction

The Jerusalem municipal planning committee on Wednesday is set to review requests to build hundreds of apartments in East Jerusalem. That would contradict the terms of Resolution 2334, which demands that Israel halt all building in areas it won in the 1967 Middle East war and brands construction there illegal.

The moves would expand on steps Israel has taken since the Security Council vote. A senior Israeli official said the government is also weighing fresh measures against UN agencies it considers particularly hostile, including the UN Relief and Works Agency, which serves Palestinian refugees; the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and the UN observer force on the Golan Heights. Israel could restrict new recruits to the agencies, delay visas for their officials and halt or delay visits of experts to those agencies, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.

Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, said such steps against the agency would be unprecedented. “We have not heard anything directly, we’ve just seen media reports” about potential steps, he said.

Israel says last week’s UN resolution will convince Palestinians they can get what they want without having to negotiate, making them more intransigent. Netanyahu has already warned his Cabinet that the vote may not be Washington’s last foray into the region in the waning days of the Barack Obama administration.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, in a statement Tuesday, called for the International Criminal Court to consider “an immediate judicial inquiry” on whether Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territory can be prosecuted as a war crime.

What Does UN Vote on Israeli Settlements Mean and What’s Next?

After the vote, Netanyahu lashed out at Obama, saying the U.S. pushed the resolution behind the scenes and broke a commitment to shield Israel from imposed UN conditions. The U.S. decision to abstain rather than veto the resolution allowed it to pass.

Obama was highly critical of Israel’s settlements from the moment he entered office. The two leaders then clashed publicly over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, with Netanyahu denouncing it in a speech to Congress that wasn’t coordinated with the White House and that soured relations further.

Netanyahu is hoping things turn around under U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office Jan. 20. Trump has pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his choice of ambassador to Israel, attorney David Friedman, is a strong supporter of the settlements. On Tuesday Trump also appointed Thomas Bossert, a campaign adviser on Israeli issues, to be his assistant for homeland security and counter terrorism

Trump promised the Israeli-U.S. relationship would change after the UN vote, saying in a pair of posts on his Twitter account that “The big loss yesterday for Israel in the United Nations will make it much harder to negotiate peace. Too bad, but we will get it done anyway!” That followed an earlier vow saying “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”

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