WASHINGTON: With fewer than four weeks left in office, US Secretary of State John Kerry will on Wednesday lay out a vision for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The goal of a two-state solution, with Israel and a future Palestine living side-by-side within agreed borders has eluded generations of US diplomats.
But in the final days of President Barack Obama’s administration, and with Israel’s government openly hostile to outside pressure, Kerry wants to leave his mark.
“He feels it’s his duty in his waning weeks and days as secretary to lay out what he believes is a way towards a peaceful two-state solution,” his spokesman said.
“It’s always important to try to keep the process moving forward, to lay out constructive visions for the future,” spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
Negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas’s administration are already a dead letter.
And if Kerry wants the sides to pay attention to his “comprehensive vision” of a settlement, he faces two stark challenges that even his ill-fated predecessors did not.
Firstly, Netanyahu is already in a towering fury over Obama’s decision last week not to veto a UN Security Council motion to condemn Israeli settlement building.
Secondly, incoming US leader Donald Trump has signaled he will take a much softer line, nominating an ambassador who wants to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Arab leaders warn such a move would provoke a regional diplomatic backlash and Palestinian protests, and Netanyahu has no incentive to act before Trump’s inauguration.
Nevertheless, Obama and Kerry are clearly not ready to give up on the region yet, hoping the UN resolution and the Washington speech will save a moribund process.
Already, earlier this month, Kerry showed his frustration with Netanyahu’s refusal to curtail Israeli settlement building on disputed West Bank and Jerusalem land.
“There’s a basic choice that has to be made by Israelis, by the leadership of Israel, by all of you who support Israel and care about Israel,” Kerry warned US and Israeli officials.
“Is there going to be a continued implementation of settlement policy, or is there going to be separation and the creation of two states?” he demanded.
Netanyahu had already told the same meeting of the Saban Forum that the main impediment to peace was the failure of much of the Arab world to recognize Israel.
Kerry insisted the accelerating program of Jewish settlement building on land Palestinians claim for their future state acts as a “barrier” to peace.
This has been US policy for decades, but Kerry went further, accusing members of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition of actively opposing a peace deal.
Washington, and the bulk of the international community as reflected by UN votes, foresees two states based on Israel’s 1967 border with some land swaps.
According to Kerry, the Israeli right — despite Netanyahu’s protests that he is ready for direct talks without preconditions — wants to thwart this.
“They don’t want peace. They believe it’s greater Israel,” Kerry told Saban, an annual US-Israeli leadership forum.
“And they want it to block the peace process because they want those places to belong to Israel. That’s the history of the settler movement, my friends.”
This year Obama awarded Israel the biggest US military aid package in history — $38 billion over ten years — but Netanyahu is unimpressed.
On Wednesday, a Jerusalem planning committee is to discuss issuing building permits for hundreds more settler houses in the mainly Palestinian east of the city.
“We’ll discuss everything that’s on the table in a serious manner,” Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Meir Turjeman told AFP.
And on his Facebook page he added: “I’m not concerned by the UN or anything else trying to dictate our actions in Jerusalem.”
Netanyahu’s government has also accused Obama of colluding with the Palestinians and with Egypt behind Israel’s back to push last week’s UN resolution.
Toner denied this, insisting it was “not accurate” to suggest that the motion had been “pre-cooked” before Egypt unveiled it last week.
But he confirmed that US officials had seen draft resolutions and suggested “what further changes were needed to make the text more balanced.”
And Washington clearly did nothing to dissuade other UN members from bringing forward the resolution — the first passed against settlements since 1979.
“It’s not like our views regarding settlements or regarding resolutions with respect to Israel aren’t well known,” Toner said.
So will Wednesday’s speech be the Obama administration’s last word on the conflict before he leaves office on January 20?
Might Kerry attend a Paris peace conference on January 15, despite deep Israeli hostility to the project?
“I don’t want to predict anything,” Toner said. “Certainly this administration’s going to continue to work until January 20.”