In major speech, John Kerry defends U.S. policy toward Israel

(CBS NEWS) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday defended the United States’ decision to abstain on a United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement activity, saying the U.S. could not “allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our eyes.”

“This is a time to stand up for what is right,” Kerry said, speaking at the State Department. “We have long known what two states living side by side in peace and security looks like. We should not be afraid to say so.”

The speech, which lasted more than an hour, was one of Kerry’s final addresses as secretary of state — and came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Israel.

Kerry said a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “in jeopardy” but still possible, noting that “there is still a way forward if the responsible parties are willing to act.”

Netanyahu denounced Kerry’s speech Wednesday from his office in Jerusalem, calling it “a great disappointment.”

“It concerns itself obsessively with settlements instead of focusing on the root — the Palestinians’ continuing refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any borders,” he said.

The U.S. vote has received blistering criticism from Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for its refusal to block the U.N. resolution last week. President Obama and his administration have also been roundly criticized for the move by many U.S. elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats.

President-elect Donald Trump has been vocal in his disagreement with the abstention, saying things will change when he’s inaugurated in January. Netanyahu responded to Mr. Trump on Twitter, thanking him for his “clear-cut support for Israel.”

“[Israel] used to have a great friend in the U.S. but not anymore,” Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal and now this (U.N.)!”

Kerry defended the Obama administration against claims that it has deserted Israel, saying the U.S. has consistently made clear that it supports the country.

“No American administration has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama’s,” Kerry said. “…Time and again we have demonstrated that we have Israel’s back.”

He added that “virtually every country in the world” besides Israel opposes the settlements, including many countries counted among Israel’s friends. Close ties between two countries require “mutual respect,” and the ability to disagree on policies, he said.

“Regrettably some seem to believe that the U.S.’ friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests … even after urging again and again that the policies change,” he said. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”

He also said the U.S. wasn’t responsible for the vote, despite Israeli suggestions to the contrary.

“The United States did not draft or originate this resolution, nor did we put it forward,” he said.

Kerry’s defense of U.S. policy toward Israel also included sharp criticism of Netanyahu, whose government Kerry argued is “the most right-wing in Israeli history.”

If Israel pursues a one-state policy, Kerry added, it will have to choose between its identity as a Jewish state and its democracy.

“If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic,” he said. “It cannot be both.”

Kerry also said it’s the fault of both sides of the issue for playing on fear and stereotypes that only further exacerbate tensions.

“After decades of conflict, many no longer see the other side as people — only as threats and enemies,” he said. “Both sides continue to push a narrative that plays to people’s fears and reinforces the worst stereotypes, rather than working to change perceptions and build up belief in the possibility of peace.”

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