PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
WASHINGTON – After four years as secretary of state that featured 375 public conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 40 in-person visits, John Kerry appeared frustrated Sunday that more than 130 hours of conversation have failed to slow Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank.
Israel is “heading to a place of danger,” Kerry told the Saban Forum in Washington, warning of “an erosion over a period of time” of the chances for a real and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace “by virtue of this continued settlement process.”
He spoke two hours after the prime minister told the same forum that settlement activity is not the reason for the absence of peace. Kerry pushed back.
“I don’t agree with him that settlements are not an obstacle to peace,” Kerry said. “Let’s not kid ourselves here – you can’t just wipe it away by saying it doesn’t have an impact. It has an impact.
“I’m not here to say that settlements are the reason for the conflict. No, they’re not,” he continued. “But I also cannot accept the notion that they’re not a barrier to peace.”
This was Kerry’s fourth time attending the forum, and his message has been consistent throughout: Israel cannot fulfill its founding promise without forging a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians that provides them with a state of their own.But in this, his final appearance as secretary of state, Kerry warned Netanyahu against teasing Israelis by saying there can be a peace agreement with the Arab world that would precede a twostate solution.
“There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world – I want to make that clear to all of you,” he said, “without the Palestinian process and without Palestinian peace.”
After polling the crowd to see how many attendees believe a one-state solution is possible – only one member raised his hand – Kerry slammed members of the Netanyahu government who, in his words, had offered “profoundly disturbing statements” hailing the end of the peace process with Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency.
“There is no status quo. It is getting worse. It is moving in the wrong direction,” he said.
“It defies the imagination that you’re going to have a Jewish state with a unitary state.”
But in all of his efforts and in all of his conversations with the premier, Kerry was forced by the moderator, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, to acknowledge a lack of American leverage on the issue of settlements.
“We issue a warning today when we see a settlement’s going up – nothing happens,” he said.
Kerry promised the Obama administration would veto all resolutions that make their way to the UN Security Council that are “biased, unfair and illegitimate” – but said that international frustration has reached a boiling point, which is leading to several draft resolutions from several countries.
Notably, the secretary decided against delivering a formal speech – which he has done at this forum in the past – instead opting to engage only in a question- and-answer session. Senior Obama administration officials have largely sought to avoid long public statements on its Israel policy in their final year in office.
Kerry led an aggressive effort in 2013 and 2014 to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but the Palestinians refused to attend unless their preconditions were met.
War between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip followed.
Israeli-American billionaire and Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban hosts the Brookings Institution forum every year, which brings together top thinkers and policy-makers from Washington and Jerusalem to discuss the status of US policy on Israel and the Middle East.
Last year, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed a packed audience at the Willard InterContinental in Washington. This year’s confab was more muted: guests were asked to move forward in their seats to fill the front of the event.
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