Hoyer to Administration: Avoid Last-Ditch Middle East Peace Push

Secretary of State says Israeli settlements undermine notion of two-state solution

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says he wants the Obama administration to stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during its final weeks. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says he wants the Obama administration to stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during its final weeks. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 28, 2016 at 12:18pm

A top House Democrat is warning the Obama administration against pushing for any U.S.-brokered peace pact between Israeli and Palestinian leaders during Obama’s final weeks in power. But Secretary of State John Kerry hours later had harsh words for the Jewish state’s leaders.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., says Israel’s “enemies were strengthened” when the Obama White House opted against vetoing a recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning its settlements in Palestinian territory. And he says any eleventh-hour administration effort to broker a peace deal would further “disadvantage” Israel.

His statement came about 12 hours before the outgoing top American diplomat Kerry made his case for the path toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, using his remarks to criticize both sides. Notably, Kerry said Israel’s settlement development “has nothing to do with” its national security.

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“I don’t think most people in Israel, certainly in the world, have any idea how broad and systematic the process has become” of consolidation of Israeli control and settlement building of the heart of the West Bank, Kerry said Wednesday. “Let’s be clear, settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security.”

But in a statement issued late Tuesday night, Hoyer essentially told Obama administration officials to stay out of the decades-long conflict during its final weeks.

The notion of a Washington-pushed peace plan “flies in the face of the United States’ longstanding position that such a formulation should be reached only through negotiations by the parties and not by the United States, the United Nations, or any other third party,” Hoyer said. “I urge Secretary Kerry and the administration not to set forth a formula, which will inevitably disadvantage Israel in any negotiation.”

Instead, Hoyer wants the U.S. to “signal unequivocally to the entire world that we will continue to stand by our ally Israel as it seeks to build a future of peace and safety as a Jewish state and an equal member of the family of nations.”

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The stance aligns Hoyer more closely with GOP President-elect Donald Trump, who is harshly criticizing President Barack Obama over his decision for the U.S. to abstain from voting on — rather than vetoing —the U.N. resolution. Trump also is pledging a much closer and warmer relationship with the Jewish state.

Some experts say the long-held U.S. policy that a Palestinian state must be created alongside Israel appears in jeopardy. David Friedman, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, is a supporter of the controversial settlements and has called the two-state solution a “narrative” that should be put to rest.

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a leading Jewish member, waited until 6:50 p.m. (EST) to weigh in. In a statement, he expressed concern that Kerry had merely managed to “emboldened extremists on both sides.”

“While Secretary Kerry mentioned Gaza in his speech, he seems to have forgotten the history of the settlements in Gaza, where the Israeli government forced settlers to withdraw from all settlements and the Palestinians responded by sending rockets from Gaza into Israel,” Schumer said. “This is something that people of all political stripes in Israel vividly remember.” 

State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday described Kerry’s plan differently than Hoyer, saying the outgoing top American diplomat will only sketch out a path toward a new — and elusive — peace deal.

Kerry believes “it is his duty in his remaining weeks and days as secretary of State to lay out what he believes is a way towards a two-state solution,” the spokesman said, and that “it’s always important to keep the process moving forward.” He continued: “We haven’t given up on this and we don’t think the Israelis and Palestinians should either.”

Kerry spoke on Wednesday morning at the State Department in Washington, and responded to criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from a vote at the U.N. condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The U.S. “cannot be true to our own values” or Israel’s stated values “if we allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our eyes,” Kerry said.

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Kerry said it was time for a “clear-eyed conversation about the uncomfortable truths” of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a reference to the settlement enlargement policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry said “friends need to tell each other the hard truths and friendships require mutual respect.”

“The two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy. … Trends on the ground … 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,” he said. “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both and it will not ever really be at peace.”

Kerry also criticized Israel for “consolidating control” of the West Bank, saying most Israelis appear to oppose such actions.

Ryan Lucas and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.