Defending UN vote, Kerry ratchets up criticism of Israel

Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump's reelection message: Promises kept The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's reelection message: Promises kept Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE on Wednesday took aim at Israel’s government as he defended the administration's decision to allow the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the country's settlement activity.

“Friends need to tell each other the hard truths and friendships require mutual respect,” Kerry said during a more than hourlong speech at the State Department.

He vigorously defended the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel’s security, something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top Republicans questioned following last week’s vote. 

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Kerry’s comments appeared to be directed at Netanyahu, who just days ago said “friends don’t take friends to the Security Council” and that he was hopeful for a better U.S.-Israel relationship under President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE

Kerry said he believes Netanyahu backs a two-state solution, long the foundation for all peace negotiations. 

But he said Netanyahu is leading the “most right-wing” government in Israeli history and that it is putting the country’s future as a democracy at risk. 

"If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic,” Kerry said. “It cannot be both, and it won't ever really be at peace." 

In a rebuttal from Jerusalem, Netanyahu hit back at Kerry for spending more time criticizing Israeli settlement activity than condemning Palestinian acts of terror. 

He said the remarks were “almost as unbalanced” at a Security Council resolution ratified last week that denounced the settlements.

"Israelis do not need to be lectured about the importance of peace by foreign leaders,” Netanyahu said. 

The Israeli leader said the conflict with the Palestinians “has always been about Israel’s very right to exist.”

“I can only express my regret and say that it’s a shame that Secretary Kerry does not see this simple truth,” he added. 

With just three weeks left as the nation’s top diplomat, Kerry used his speech Wednesday to make a last-ditch bid at charting a path forward for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. He has suggested the collapse of peace talks in 2014 is one of the greatest regrets of his tenure.

Critics argue the Obama administration made reviving those talks harder by abstaining from the Security Council resolution denouncing settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Because of the U.S. abstention, the resolution passed 14-0.

They say the vote empowered Israel’s opponents and gave the Palestinians leverage in future talks with the Israelis. 

But Kerry disputed that argument, saying the U.S. “could not in good conscience stand in the way of a resolution” condemning settlements that all American presidents since 1967 have called an obstacle to peace. 

“The United States did, in fact, vote in accordance with our values, just as previous U.S. administrations have done at the Security Council before us,” he said. 

“The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution,” he added. “That's what we were standing up for.”

Kerry acknowledged ending settlement activity would not guarantee a peace deal but said that Israel’s current trajectory is leading toward a dangerous future. 

“The settler agenda is defining the future of Israel,” he said. “If there is only one state … separate and unequal is what you would have, and nobody can explain how that works.”

Kerry’s comments are likely to escalate the verbal war that has broken out between the White House, Netanyahu and Trump. 

The Israeli leader has already struck up a closer relationship with Trump than he ever had with President Obama.  

Both leaders publicly urged the Obama administration to veto the resolution last Friday. Even before that, Trump signaled that he supports Netanyahu’s policies. 

Trump announced his intent to nominate an ambassador to Israel who backs settlement activities and relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a provocative move that would anger the Palestinians, who also claim the holy city as their capital. 

“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 not anymore,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. 

“The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

“President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!” Netanyahu tweeted before Kerry’s speech. 

This story was updated at 2:49 p.m.