“Some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles — even after urging again and again that the policy must change,” he said. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
Mr. Kerry usually speaks in the careful words of diplomacy, being careful not to publicly name names, or put choices in the harshest terms. He dropped most of those niceties on Wednesday, especially about Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
“The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution, but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” he said. “The result is that policies of this government — which the prime minister himself just described as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history’ — are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state.”
It was a remarkable moment in the American-Israeli relationship, and it was a remarkable moment for Mr. Kerry.
With his presidential hopes dashed after his loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 election, Mr. Kerry saw his time as secretary of state as a chance to make a true change in the Middle East. In three weeks, his near-constant travels around the world will end and his energetic diplomacy will suddenly terminate. He has one major accomplishment under his belt — the Iran nuclear deal — but he could not achieve his goals on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, or in the Syrian civil war.
Mr. Kerry cast himself as one of Israel’s greatest friends, and cited a lifelong commitment to the country. But he said he had to “save the two-state solution while there was still time.”
“We did not take this decision lightly,” he said of the United Nations vote.
For Mr. Kerry, the speech was also a rueful valedictory. As soon as he took over from Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in 2013, he plunged into the tar pit of Middle East peace negotiations with an enthusiasm neither his predecessor nor President Obama shared. The goal was a nine-month negotiation leading to a “final status” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the summer of 2014.
It never got that far. Despite scores of meetings between Mr. Kerry and his two main interlocutors, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Kerry and his lead mediators, Martin Indyk and Frank Lowenstein, could not make progress. They blamed both sides for taking actions that undermined the process, but the continued expansion of the settlements was one of their leading complaints — an effort, in the American and European view, to establish “facts on the ground” so that territory could not be traded away.
In the years since, the population of the settlements has expanded rapidly. The effort to get talks going again never gained the slightest momentum. But Mr. Kerry’s warning, that a collapse would lead to another intifada, also did not come true. Instead it has led to stagnation and a hardening of positions.
Mr. Kerry wanted to deliver Wednesday’s speech more than two years ago, current and former aides say. But he was blocked from doing so by the White House, which saw little value in further angering Mr. Netanyahu, who has opposed any speech that might limit Israel’s negotiating room or become the basis for a United Nations Security Council resolution to guide the terms of a “final status” deal.
Now, after a remarkable confrontation with Israel after the Security Council’s passage of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements as a flagrant violation of international law, Mr. Kerry appears to have concluded there is nothing left to lose.
Mr. Netanyahu has accused the United States of “orchestrating” the vote, and his aides have said that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama effectively stabbed Israel in the back. Israeli officials have said they have evidence that the United States organized the resolution, which the State Department denies.
At the core of Mr. Kerry’s argument on Wednesday was the need for all sides to embrace a two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state recognizing each other. Even that idea may not last: Mr. Trump has nominated an American ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, who has rejected the idea of a two-state solution — a concept that President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton also embraced — and who has helped finance the new settlements that the United Nations condemned. Mr. Clinton gave a similar speech at the end of his presidency, just after the collapse of negotiations at Camp David.
The speech was intended, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday night, to make the case that “the vote was not unprecedented” and that Mr. Obama’s decision “did not blindside Israel.” Mr. Kerry, the official said, would cite other cases in which Washington officials had allowed similar votes under previous presidents.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a coming speech, said Mr. Kerry would also argue that, with the notable exception of Israel, there was a “complete international consensus” against further settlements in areas that might ultimately be the subject of negotiations.