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John Kerry just delivered the sharpest attack on Israeli settlements of any top US official

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at the State Department on December 28, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

US Secretary of State John Kerry used a high-profile speech Wednesday to deliver what was perhaps the clearest, most detailed attack on Israeli settlements ever articulated by a senior US official.

The nearly 80-minute-long speech was striking in both its level of detail and its subtle yet unmistakable policy shifts. Kerry, who tried and failed to revitalize the moribund peace process, warned that Israel’s rapidly growing settler population — nearly 600,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank — could kill off any last chance at a two-state solution to the conflict and endanger Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state.

“If more and more settlers are moving into the middle of the Palestinian areas, it’s going to be that much harder to separate, that much harder to imagine transferring sovereignty — and that is exactly the outcome that some are accelerating,” he said.

Kerry also laid into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose chilly relationship with the White House plunged to new depths last week after Washington abstained on a controversial UN Security Council resolution declaring that the establishment of settlements by Israel “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

“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,” Kerry 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, toward one state.”

Kerry also drew a direct parallel between the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and the immense suffering of Palestinians, creating an equivalence that will almost certainly prove controversial among Israelis and many American Jews.

“When Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2018, the Palestinians will mark a very different anniversary: 70 years since what they call the ‘Nakba,’ or catastrophe,” Kerry said.

By specifically choosing to use the highly charged Arabic word “nakba,” which no other high-level US officials appear to have used before, Kerry essentially legitimized the Palestinian narrative of suffering in a much stronger, more emotional way than we have seen before from the US side.

Yet Kerry’s speech also offered Israel some big wins. First, Kerry said that any solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees “must be consistent with two states for two peoples, and cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel.”

This is hugely significant. One of the biggest sticking points for the Palestinians in peace negotiations has been what is referred to as the “right of return” of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their homes with the creation of Israel.

Israel, on the other hand, strongly opposes any such measure, arguing that a large influx of Palestinians into Israel would fundamentally change the demographic makeup of the country, threatening its character as a “Jewish state.” Kerry’s statement, then, is essentially an endorsement of the Israeli position on the issue of the right of return — a policy shift that is sure to please Israel.

Another big win for Israel was Kerry’s statement that Jerusalem should be “the internationally recognized capital of the two states” of Israel and Palestine, that it should not be divided, and that any final resolution must “protect and assure freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo” (emphasis mine).

Endorsing the maintenance of the status quo on and around the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem is a big deal and a major win for the Israelis. Previous plans have included provisions calling for the area — which includes the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Sunni Islam — to be put under international supervision.

Israel strongly opposes such a move because Jews had spent centuries barred from visiting the Western Wall and don't trust the international community — which they see as hopelessly biased — to ensure continued access.

Those apparent concessions did little to mollify Netanyahu, who derided Kerry’s speech as “biased against Israel” and "obsessively focused" on settlements. He also complained that "[w]hat [Kerry] did was spend most of his speech blaming Israel for the lack of peace."

Kerry’s speech, coming right as President Obama prepares to turn over the keys to the White House to President-elect Donald Trump on January 20, amounts to a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration to influence the future course of the moribund peace process. But it is unclear what, if anything, the administration plans to do to advance its vision in the remaining few days it has left.

Trump has left little doubt of his complete rejection of the Obama approach, tweeting just before Kerry’s speech:

Even more strikingly, Trump's pick to run the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo, liked a tweet calling Kerry a “traitor”:

Perhaps the most important question now is whether Kerry’s speech will lead to a new resolution at the United Nations Security Council enshrining Obama’s conditions for a final status peace deal and holding out the possibility of concrete sanctions on Israel if it doesn't withdraw from the West Bank and likely East Jerusalem by a certain date.

France is hosting a gathering of dozens of foreign ministers in Paris on January 15 to discuss the conflict, and Israeli officials are concerned that the meeting could result in a proposal that could then be taken to the United Nations for a vote in Obama's last few days in office.

If such a measure is introduced, Obama will face a tough and politically complex choice. Trump has appointed an ambassador to Israel who opposes the two-state solution and personally made clear that he would veto such a resolution on sight. Even many of Obama’s fellow Democrats would likely oppose the departing president making such a far-reaching policy shift in his waning days and hours in office.

But after eight years of failed efforts to jump-start the peace process, Obama might opt to do so all the same.

Watch: Israeli settlements, explained