It took eight years of backbiting and pretending they got along for relations between President Barack Obama’s administration and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to finally hit rock bottom.
Though they’ve clashed bitterly before, mostly notably over Iran, the two governments seemed further apart than ever after a speech on Wednesday by Secretary of State John Kerry and last week’s United Nations resolution.
The key question for the Obama administration, newly willing to air grievances with Israel on live television, is why now?
“We cannot, in good conscience, do nothing and say nothing when we see the hope of peace slipping away,” Kerry said in a speech that ran more than an hour.
Yet in just over three weeks, Obama will no longer be president, Kerry will no longer be secretary of state, and the US will have a new leader under no obligation to embrace any of what Kerry said. President-elect Donald Trump has assured Israel that things will be different after January 20, when he’s to be inaugurated, and lamented how the Jewish state was “being treated very, very unfairly.”
Kerry took pains to voice America’s staunch commitment to Israel’s security and support for its future, and to detail US complaints about Palestinian leadership and its failure to sufficiently deter violence against Israelis. He laid out a six-point framework for a potential peace deal that it will be up to the next US government to try to enact, if it chooses to do so.
The White House has portrayed Obama’s decision to break with tradition by abstaining from rather than vetoing a UN Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements illegal as a reaction forced by other countries that brought it up for a vote.
The White House has also acknowledged that Obama had long considered the possibility of taking some symbolic step before leaving office to leave his imprint on the debate. For much of the year, his staff pored over options that included a UN resolution outlining principles for a peace deal and a presidential speech much like the one Kerry gave on Wednesday.
Yet there was reluctance to act before the US election, given the way it would have thrust the Israeli-Palestinian issue into the campaign.
Kerry acknowledged Trump appears to favor a different approach. Yet, frustrated by years of Israeli actions he deemed counterproductive for peace, Obama appeared to have decided it was better to make his administration’s views known while still in office, even if it risked a blockbuster clash with America’s closest ally.