US-Israeli ties at new low as Kerry hits out at Netanyahu

They trade blame over stalled Mid-East peace process, Trump vows fresh start when he takes office next month

TEL AVIV • Strained US-Israeli ties have reached another low as US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded blame over the stalled Middle-East peace process, with US President-elect Donald Trump vowing a fresh start when he takes office on Jan 20.

Mr Kerry, in a speech on Wednesday in Washington, said Mr Netanyahu's policies backing the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank were putting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly out of reach.

Mr Netanyahu, minutes later, accused Mr Kerry of anti-Israel bias and said the US focus on settlements was "unbalanced".

"This conflict is and always has been about Israel's very right to exist," Mr Netanyahu said. "How can you make peace with someone who rejects your very existence?"

On vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, Mr Trump posted two Twitter messages rejecting Mr Kerry's speech before it was delivered.

ISRAEL'S EXISTENCE

This conflict is and always has been about Israel's very right to exist. How can you make peace with someone who rejects your very existence?

ISRAEL'S PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, who accuses Mr Kerry of anti-Israel bias and says the US focus on settlements was 'unbalanced'.

"We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect," he wrote on Wednesday morning.

He added: "Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!"

With barely three weeks remaining in the Obama administration, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump are already showing their eagerness to engage in a more cooperative relationship. The President-elect has attacked Mr Barack Obama over his decision not to veto a United Nations resolution last week criticising Israeli settlements and vowed stronger ties with the country after he takes office.

His pick for ambassador to Israel, attorney David Friedman, is a firm supporter of the settlements.

Mr Netanyahu, just ahead of Mr Kerry's speech, showed his appreciation for Mr Trump's support. "President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!" the Israeli leader said in a post on Twitter.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu never managed to build strong personal ties even as their governments cooperated on a range of military, intelligence and commercial issues.

Nevertheless, Mr Kerry emphasised the Obama administration's consistent backing for Israel, saying that "this administration has been Israel's greatest friend and supporter".

Yet the expansion of settlements, including in areas far from Israel's pre-1967 borders, means the prospects for a diplomatic solution are being "narrowed", Mr Kerry said, adding: "The settler agenda is defining the future."

Mr Kerry's speech came as Israel faces increasing international isolation over Mr Netanyahu's policies. France is gathering dozens of foreign ministers in Paris on Jan 15 to discuss the conflict.

Israeli officials say that may result in a proposal they view as unfavourable, which could then be taken to the UN for a seal of approval.

Mr Kerry outlined principles for a two-state solution which envisioned secure and recognised international borders between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestine - based on the 1967 lines before it seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Mr Netanyahu has described the 1967 lines as indefensible and has said Israel would never return to them.

Mr Kerry also called for an agreed resolution for Jerusalem as the "internationally recognised capital of the two states".

BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2016, with the headline 'US-Israeli ties at new low as Kerry hits out at Netanyahu'. Print Edition | Subscribe