Remarks on Middle East Peace by Secretary of State John Kerry

State Department Logo.

The Dean Acheson Auditorium

Washington, DC

December 28, 2016


  • This is an issue which, all of you know, I have worked on intensively during my time as Secretary of State for one simple reason: because the two state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors. It is the only way to ensure a future of freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people. And it is an important way of advancing United States interests in the region.
  • The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two state solution. That’s what we were standing up for: Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side by side in peace and security with its neighbors. That’s what we are trying to preserve, for our sake and for theirs.
  • No American Administration has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama’s. The Israeli Prime Minister himself has noted our, quote, “unprecedented” military and intelligence cooperation.
  • Time and again we have demonstrated that we have Israel’s back. We have strongly opposed boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions targeting Israel in international fora, whenever and wherever its legitimacy was attacked, and we have fought for its inclusion across the UN system. In the midst of our own financial crisis and budget deficits, we repeatedly increased funding to support Israel. In fact, more than one-half of our entire global Foreign Military Financing goes to Israel. And this fall, we concluded an historic $38 billion dollar memorandum of understanding that exceeds any military assistance package the U.S. has provided to any country, at any time, and that will invest in cutting edge missile defense, and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come.
  • The truth is that trends on the ground – violence, terrorism, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation – they are combining to destroy hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want.

Today, there are a number – there are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  They have a choice.  They can choose to live together in one state, or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both – and it won’t ever really be at peace.  Moreover, the Palestinians will never fully realize their vast potential in a homeland of their own with a one state solution.

  • After decades of conflict, many no longer see the other side as people, only as threats and enemies. 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.
  • And the truth is, the extraordinary polarization in this conflict extends beyond Israelis and Palestinians. Allies of both sides are content to reinforce this with an us or – “you’re with us or against us” mentality where too often anyone who questions Palestinian actions is an apologist for the occupation and anyone who disagrees with Israeli policy is cast as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic.
  • This critical decision about the future – one state or two states — is effectively being made on the ground every single day, despite the expressed opinion of the majority of the people.
  • The status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation, but most of the public either ignores it or has given up hope that anything can be done to change it. And with this passive resignation, the problem only gets worse, the risks get greater and the choices are narrowed. This sense of hopelessness among Israelis is exacerbated by the continuing violence, terrorist attacks against civilians and incitement, which are destroying belief in the possibility of peace.
  • Let me emphasize: this is not to say that the settlements are the whole or even primary cause of the conflict. Of course they are not. Nor can you say that if they were suddenly removed you’d have peace. Without a broader agreement, you would not. And we understand that in a final status agreement, certain settlements would become part of Israel to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 49 years – we understand that – including the new demographic realities that exist on the ground. They would have to be factored in.  But if more and more settlers are moving into the middle of the Palestinian areas, it’s going to be just that much harder to separate, that much harder to imagine transferring sovereignty, and that is exactly the outcome that some are purposefully accelerating.
  • Let’s be clear: settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security. Many settlements actually increase the security burden on the Israeli Defense Forces. And leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
  • You may hear that these remote settlements aren’t a problem because they only take up a very small percentage of the land. Well, again and again we have made it clear, it’s not just a question of the overall amount of land available in the West Bank. It’s whether the land can be connected or it’s broken up into small parcels, like Swiss cheese, that could never constitute a real state. The more outposts that are built, the more settlements expand, the less possible it is to create a contiguous state. So in the end, a settlement is not just the land that it’s on, it’s also what the location does to the movement of people, what it does to the ability of a road to connect, what it does to the sense of statehood that is chipped away with each new construction. No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of what the settlements pose to that peace.
  • There are currently about 2.75 million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, most of them in Areas A and B – 40 percent of the West Bank – where they have limited autonomy. They are restricted in their daily movements by a web of checkpoints, and unable to travel into or out of the West Bank without a permit from the Israelis.
  • So if there is only one state, you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank, with no real political rights, separate legal, education and transportation systems, vast income disparities, under a permanent military occupation that deprives of them of the most basic freedoms. Separate and unequal is what you would have. And nobody can explain how that works. Would an Israeli accept living that way? Would an American accept living that way?  Will the world accept it?
  • One thing we do know: if Israel goes down the one state path, it will never have true peace with the rest of the Arab world, and I can say that with certainty. The Arab countries have made clear that they will not make peace with Israel without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s not where their loyalties lie.  That’s not where their politics are.

But there is something new here.  Common interests in countering Iran’s destabilizing activities, and fighting extremists, as well as diversifying their economies have created real possibilities for something different if Israel takes advantage of the opportunity for peace.  I have spent a great deal of time with key Arab leaders exploring this, and there is no doubt that they are prepared to have a fundamentally different relationship with Israel. That was stated in the Arab Peace Initiative, years ago. And in all my recent conversations, Arab leaders have confirmed their readiness, in the context of Israeli-Palestinian peace, not just to normalize relations but to work openly on securing that peace with significant regional security cooperation. It’s waiting. It’s right there.

Many have shown a willingness to support serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to take steps on the path to normalization of relations – including public meetings — providing there is meaningful progress towards a two state solution. That is a real opportunity that should not be missed.

  • We have repeatedly and emphatically stressed to the Palestinians that all incitement to violence must stop. We have consistently condemned all violence and terrorism, and we have strongly opposed unilateral efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora.

We have made countless public and private exhortations to the Israelis to stop the march of settlements. In literally hundreds of conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I have made clear that continued settlement activity would only increase pressure for an international response. We have all known for some time that the Palestinians were intent on moving forward with a settlements resolution, and I advised the Prime Minister repeatedly that further settlement activity only invited UN action. Yet the settlement activity just increased – including advancing the unprecedented legislation to legalize settler outposts that the Prime Minister himself reportedly warned could expose Israel to action at the Security Council and even international prosecution before deciding to support it.

  • In the end, we could not in good conscience protect the most extreme elements of the settler movement as it tries to destroy the two state solution. We could not in good conscience turn a blind eye to Palestinian actions that fan hatred and violence. It is not in U.S. interests to help anyone on either side create a unitary state. We may not be able to stop them, but we cannot be expected to defend them. And it is certainly not the role of any country to vote against its own policies.

That is why we decided not to block the UN resolution that makes clear both sides have to take steps to save the two state solution while there is still time.   And we did not take this decision lightly. The Obama administration has always defended Israel against any efforts at the UN and any international fora, or biased and one-sided resolutions that seek to undermine its legitimacy or security,  and that has not changed.  It didn’t change with this vote.

  • Previous administrations of both political parties have allowed resolutions that were critical of Israel to pass, including on settlements. On dozens of occasions under George W. Bush alone, the Council passed six resolutions that Israel opposed – including one that endorsed a plan calling for a complete freeze on settlements, including natural growth.
  • If we had vetoed this resolution just the other day, the United States would have been giving license to further unfettered settlement construction that we fundamentally oppose.
  • We reject the criticism that this vote abandons Israel. On the contrary, it is not this Resolution that is isolating Israel – it is a policy of permanent settlement construction that risks making peace impossible. Virtually every country in the world other than Israel opposes settlements. That includes many friends of Israel — including the United Kingdom, France and Russia – all of whom voted in favor of the settlements resolution in 2011 that we vetoed, and again this year along with every other member of the Council.
  • We fully respect Israel’s profound historic and religious ties to the city and its holy sites. We’ve never questioned that. This resolution in no manner prejudges the outcome of permanent status negotiations on East Jerusalem, which must of course take into account those historic ties and realities on the ground.
  • We strongly reject the notion that somehow the United States was the driving force behind this resolution. The United States did not draft this resolution, nor did we put it forward. It was drafted by Egypt – it was drafted and I think introduced by Egypt.

And during the time of the process as it went out, we made clear to others, including those on the Security Council, that it was possible that if the resolution were to be balanced and it were to include references to incitement and to terrorism, that it was possible the United States would then not block it, that – if it was balanced and fair.  That’s a standard practice with resolutions at the Security Council.  The Egyptians and the Palestinians and many others understood that if the text were more balanced, it was possible we wouldn’t block it.  But we also made crystal clear that the President of the United States would not make a final decision about our own position until we saw the final text.

We could not in good conscience veto a resolution that condemns violence and incitement  and reiterates what has been for a long time the overwhelming consensus and international view on settlements and calls for the parties to start taking constructive steps to advance the two state solution on the ground.

  • Ultimately, it will be up to the Israeli people to decide whether the unusually heated attacks that Israeli officials have directed toward this administration best serve Israel’s national interests and its relationship with an ally that has been steadfast in its support, as I described. Those attacks, alongside allegations of a U.S.-led conspiracy and other manufactured claims, distract attention from what the substance of this vote really was about.
  • We all understand that Israel faces very serious threats in a very tough neighborhood. Israelis are rightfully concerned about making sure that there is not a new terrorist haven next door to them, often referencing what’s happened with Gaza, and we understand that and we believe there are ways to meet those needs of security. And Israelis are fully justified in decrying attempts to delegitimize their state and question the right of a Jewish state to exist. But this vote was not about that. It was about actions that Israelis and Palestinians are taking that are increasingly rendering a two-state solution impossible. It was not about making peace with the Palestinians now — it was about making sure peace with the Palestinians will be possible in the future.
  • The U.S. and the Middle East Quartet have repeatedly called on both sides to independently demonstrate a genuine commitment to the two state solution – not just with words, but with real actions and policies – to create the conditions for meaningful negotiations. We have called for both sides to take significant steps on the ground to reverse current trends and send a different message – a clear message – that they are prepared to fundamentally change the equation without waiting for the other side to act.

We have called for the Palestinians to do everything in their power to stop violence and incitement, including publicly and consistently condemning acts of terrorism and stopping the glorification of violence.

  • Based on my experience with both sides over the last four years, including the nine months of formal negotiations, the core issues can be resolved if there is leadership on both sides committed to finding a solution. In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide – but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep pubic skepticism only made it more difficult to take risks.

In the past two and a half years, I have tested ideas with key regional and international stakeholders, including our Quartet partners. I believe what has emerged from all of that is a broad consensus on balanced principles that would satisfy the core needs of both sides.

Everyone understands that negotiations would be complex and difficult, and nobody can be expected to agree on the final result in advance.  But if the parties could at least demonstrate that they understand the other side’s most basic needs — and are potentially willing to meet them if theirs are also met at the end of comprehensive negotiations — perhaps then enough trust could be established to enable a meaningful process to begin.

It is in that spirit that we offer the following principles: not to prejudge or impose an outcome, but to provide a possible basis for serious negotiations when the parties are ready.

  1. Provide for secure and recognized international borders between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestine, negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed equivalent swaps
  1. Fulfill the vision of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab, with mutual recognition and full equal rights for all their respective citizens.
  1. Provide for a just, agreed, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, with international assistance, that includes compensation, options and assistance in finding permanent homes, acknowledgment of suffering and other measures necessary for a comprehensive resolution consistent with two states for two peoples.
  1. Provide an agreed resolution for Jerusalem as the internationally recognized capital of the two states, and protect and assure freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo.
  1. Satisfy Israel’s security needs and bring a full end to the occupation, while ensuring that Israel can defend itself effectively and that Palestine can provide security for its people in a sovereign and non-militarized state.
  1. End the conflict and all outstanding claims, enabling normalized relations and enhanced regional security for all as envisaged by the Arab Peace Initiative.