WASHINGTON ― The best way to understand outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry's Wednesday speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to recognize that if Hillary Clinton had won the election, he most likely never would have delivered such an address.
In the harshest criticism from a member of the U.S. government against its Israeli ally, Kerry spent more than an hour venting his frustration with continued Israeli settlement construction and laying out parameters for eventual peace. The settlements and the nearly 50-year-old occupation, he said, are creating a reality on the ground that precludes the possibility of a two-state solution. He stopped short of using the word "apartheid," but warned that the one-state reality that is emerging will create a "separate and unequal" situation, invoking language from the Jim Crow era.
"The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel," Kerry said. "Their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state, greater Israel," he continued, referring to aspirations by extreme conservatives to eventually annex occupied Palestinian territory.
Kerry's premise shouldn't be controversial. It has been U.S. policy for more than four decades that Israeli settlements pose an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
But what is peculiar about his remarks is their timing. With just three weeks left in office, Kerry won't accomplish anything concrete with his speech. Instead, his words were more likely related to Donald Trump's recent election.
Next month, the Obama administration hands over policymaking authority to a man who has encouraged Israel to build more settlements. The president-elect has also nominated David Friedman, a confidante who has donated to pro-settlement causes, to serve as his ambassador to Israel. In coordination with an Israeli government dominated by politicians who openly disavow the two-state solution, the Trump White House appears poised to reverse decades of bipartisan commitment to Palestinian statehood by greenlighting Israeli settlements.
After the speech, Kerry told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell that Friedman's appointment didn't play a role in his decision to give the address. In his telling, the impetus for Wednesday's speech was a moral imperative. The U.S. cannot defend settlements and also be "true to our own values ― or even the stated democratic values of Israel," Kerry said. "Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect."
But it's hard to believe that the outgoing diplomat, who dedicated a significant chunk of his tenure to failed two-state solution negotiations, didn't feel a need to distance himself from the reality of what is to come. Wednesday's speech was tantamount to a preemptive "I-told-you-so," in the event that Trump reverses longstanding U.S. commitments to Palestinian statehood and opposition to Israeli settlements.
The Obama administration and Kerry had plenty of opportunities to make this kind of speech before today, and with time to see through the results of the tough talk. When peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014, there was no airing of "hard truths" on this level. And as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu oversaw the construction of more settlements and cobbled together a coalition that openly rejects Palestinian statehood, the Obama administration limited itself to occasional restrained criticism of the government. Obama never tied the immense amount of U.S. military aid to a settlement freeze. The only "punishment" imposed by the Obama administration for Israeli construction in the West Bank was last week's decision to abstain from voting on a non-binding U.N. resolution that criticized the settlements.
For the past several years, the Obama administration could rationalize this approach by assuming that Clinton, Kerry's predecessor, shared their belief in the need for a two-state solution and could be trusted to pick up where the current government left off. With that expectation upended, the administration appears desperate to lay down a marker.
There is a history of outgoing administrations carving out final positions on critical but unsettled issues before leaving office. This could be Kerry's effort to make clear the Obama administration's stance on the conflict and even offer a way forward for the next administration. But if Trump oversees a policy reversal that yields disastrous results, the Obama administration will be on record warning against it.