Secretary Kerry Roundtable on the Middle East Peace Conference

US Secretary of State John Kerry
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Paris, France
January 15, 2017

Roundtable with Traveling Press

SECRETARY KERRY: Look, I – first of all, I am grateful to the French for being willing to host the conference and I appreciate and respect their moral engagement and passion with the issue of peace, which I know matters to them deeply. And I think that – I really do believe that it is important that 70 nations, particularly – well, entities, but mostly nations – came together to reinforce the two-state solution which, as I pointed out quite, I thought, directly, is threatened, and it underscores this is not just one administration’s point of view – this is shared by the international community broadly and very important players with respect to any prospect of peace in the Middle East, namely Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi are all here and are quite adamant about the importance of sustaining, maintaining a two-state solution.

More importantly in the communique – and this is not some just restatement of words – they welcomed the principles that I set forward in my speech, which include the concept of a Jewish state. And that’s a first. Moreover, it’s a first when you have international organizations – the Islamic council and the Arab League and others – willing to try to shift the paradigm here, to point out that they are prepared to make peace with Israel; that they understand the major issues that have to be negotiated – while they may not agree with one or two outcomes, they acknowledge those are the central issues that have to be negotiated; and number three, that the two states is the only way to have a solution here. And given where things are going and what’s happening, that’s particularly important.

It’s also particularly important that they embraced in here a recognition that nobody can decide this for them – not the international community. That’s a major statement. They’re not trying to impose a solution. They acknowledged readily that the parties have to come together and the parties have to negotiate.

So I would not just be dismissive of that, to be honest with you. I think this is an important communique of 70 countries at a moment where the two states are threatened. And this obviously is an issue because it came up in the context of the United Nations Security Council resolution and it came up in the context of my laying out for the Administration an important set of principles and needs going forward.

So I thought today’s communique actually was a positive event because it was balanced. It was Arab countries acknowledging that you’ve got to have an end to incitement and you’ve got to have an end to terrorism and you’ve got to have an end to the absence of accountability for what is put up on the internet and cyberspace in messaging, but you also had an acknowledgment by all those countries, Arab countries, of the security needs of Israel and the central need to resolve these issues recognizing that you’ve got to create the political space for the parties to be able to come to the table. You don’t often have – part of our challenge has often been to prevent damage from being done in international fora in ways.

Now, we had some hard negotiations over language, but to me it was significant that people really grabbed on to the idea of not just hanging on to some words or to sort of expressing an idea in an old-fashioned way. To me, this – this actually was a positive conference that moved the ball forward because it evidenced a constructive readiness to engage with Israel that has not been readily put on the table by people over the course of the last several years. And I really believe that that has – that does have importance. And I don’t want to see that missed, as I think, when I gave my speech two weeks ago, the fact that Qatar, Turkey, Saudi, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, et cetera, all publicly stood up and embraced the principles at that time was pretty significant because it said we know what Secretary Kerry said about Resolution 181, about two states, a Jewish state and an Arab state and the importance of moving forward.

So folks, not everybody agrees with that but they agree with the idea that the principles are on the table and that it has to be negotiated by the parties. And you will not have a solution, as I said as clearly as you can, without those principles being addressed. And I think I’ve earned the ability over 30-plus years, and particularly over four years with a major, major effort with respect to this process, to make a judgment about what might work and what might not. So that’s where we are.

QUESTION: So Netanyahu says that you talked – that you called and talked to him and that —


QUESTION: — and that you had said that you had managed to soften some language and promised that there wasn’t going to be any Security Council action on this.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I doubt that that’s exactly what he said. I don’t know what – I haven’t seen anything they said.

QUESTION: It is what he said.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t know if that’s – is it – but what we did is what we’ve always done with respect to any resolution with respect to Israel, which is our policy, that we will always veto and we will never support a resolution that is unbalanced, that is delegitimizing and unfair. That was the standard I stated when we talked about this in the UN several weeks ago. That is the standard today. And so yeah, we came in here and where we thought it was unbalanced or where we thought it was not expressing the kind of unity that I just talked about, we fought to address it. We didn’t soften something. We did what was necessary to have a balanced resolution. And if you look at it, it speaks in positive ways rather than negative ways to both sides’ concerns.

QUESTION: Right. But it also – this – his office, the statement from his office also said that he told you that, well, the damage has already been done.

QUESTION: Already been done.


QUESTION: And there’s no way —

SECRETARY KERRY: — look, he has a point of view and I don’t obviously agree with the point of view in terms of where we stand, and I pointed that out to him in the course of the conversation – that history makes it very clear that the Reagan Administration and the H. W. Bush Administration passed a resolution, multiple resolutions, with exactly the same references with respect to occupied territory in East Jerusalem, and we, in particular, and I will quote it to you – I said point blank, “Now, I want to stress this point” – I hope you will quote this in its entirety. “Now, I want to stress this point: We fully respect Israel’s profound historic and religious ties to the city and to its holy sites, period. We’ve never questioned that, period. This resolution in no” – referring to the one in the UN – “in no manner prejudges the outcome of permanent status negotiations on East Jerusalem, which must, of course, reflect those historic ties and the realities on the ground. That’s our position. We still support it.” That is a quote.

So let’s make it clear that nothing new – there was nothing new in this resolution, and I pointed that out to the prime minister, and he did not counter that. I said there was nothing new. Since we’re into relating what was in the conversation, there was nothing new in last week’s resolution on that issue. Nothing. It was one of a long line of national security – of Security Council resolutions that have included East Jerusalem within the context of occupied territories ever since 1967 took place. And President George Herbert Walker Bush and President Reagan both had resolutions passed while they were president with the same reference, and it’s never made a difference, and it doesn’t make a difference, and we will never allow it to make a difference because of what I said in the paragraph I just quoted to you.

So we need accuracy in this. And the accuracy is that we are as supportive of Israel today as we’ve always been. We’ve been the most supportive Administration in the history of the relationship, with Iron Dome, with $38 billion of aid, with countless – we are the only – we have literally vetoed or stopped every single resolution that was unfair or unbalanced; and this one resolution, of which we abstained, we judged, for the policy reasons I articulated, to be one we couldn’t vote otherwise on as a matter of conscience. That’s the way it is.

QUESTION: So Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you about there were some parties in the conference that wanted to put in some kind of reference to the next administration moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Did you have to argue for that to be out? What are you —

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not aware of that. I – no, I had no discussion about it whatsoever personally. Our position is well-known, that we are opposed to – this Administration is opposed to that. While we’re ultimately supportive of it – with peace, we want to move it to Jerusalem; we support moving it to Jerusalem in the right context, at the right time; we’re very supportive of that – but this is not the right time. They don’t have peace. There are issues of sovereignty still that are enormously important to be resolved by the parties. And so we have suggested to people, quite rightfully, I believe, that it – that this would be extremely – it would raise very serious issues of law and certainly potential issues on the ground.

QUESTION: But do you think this was a missed – do you think this was a missed opportunity, not kind of point to any kind of move by the next administration that could damage things?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, because this is an issue of the administration. Our point of view is well-known. It’s been debated publicly at home. It did not belong within an international forum at this moment in time. It was inappropriate. I don’t know what the discussions were. I didn’t have any discussion about it with anybody, but I think everybody had a good stroke of common sense about that – I assume, or they would have come to me with some sense of problem on it. And —

QUESTION: Did anybody come to you – did you have to get involved in the phrasing about terrorism and incitement, making sure that that was put in?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I did not. Frank Lowenstein did an outstanding job yesterday in the course of those discussions. I talked with him about it on the telephone, and he told me where they were, and I thought it was coming out in a satisfactory way that had to be balanced. That’s always been our standard. This is not a new standard for us in the last day or last days of the Administration. I think we’ve – for four years I have called the Human Rights Council, talked to ambassadors, called the UN, talked at the UN, talked to UNESCO, done – I mean, I’ve personally intervened on behalf of Israel countless numbers of times, as has our entire Near East Bureau as well as the Special Envoy Frank Lowenstein, and to great success, and we’ve been able and we’ve vetoed some things as a matter of fact.

So we hold our heads high when it comes to our support for our friendship with Israel, and we believe that we’ve also kept faith with the policies of Republican and Democratic administrations all through history with respect to the abstention.

QUESTION: So what —

MR KIRBY: Time for just a couple more, guys.

QUESTION: What happens when – if they follow through on this pledge to move the embassy?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t want to start —

QUESTION: Do you share the warnings —

SECRETARY KERRY: I share a deep – I share —

QUESTION: — that the Jordanians and the others have —

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they speak for themselves, Matt. They – I’m not into issuing – we’re opposed to it because for substantive reasons of law as well as practical reasons of the perceptions on the ground, we think it’s ill-advised and I think the community, the neighborhood is speaking very directly to what the consequences might be, and I’ll let their words speak for that. That’s far more impact than my saying something.

MR KIRBY: Just one more. Anybody got one?

QUESTION: Some people who welcomed your speech on general principles for the two-state solution did complain that you could have made the same speech two years ago. Do you think we’d be further along?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, we couldn’t make it two years ago because we were negotiating, and you don’t do that in the middle of a negotiation, so that’s inaccurate. And secondly —

QUESTION: So we’re no longer in the middle of a negotiation?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, there’s no negotiation going on right now. None whatsoever. We were not. Then, we were actively in a major negotiation, and moreover, immediately after that, we faced a presidential campaign in which both candidates, by virtue of the realities of how things work, would have been forced to completely negate or walk away from any such speech at that moment in time. So it simply wasn’t doable back then, and I think that’s inaccurate, practically and in other terms. And the only reason we did do it was because the resolution was coming up in the context of what was put in by the Palestinians and the Egyptians, and we were going to have to respond to it in the UN.

And by the way, and I told that to the prime minister time and time again – I said to him over four years, “You’re making it harder and harder for the United States to be able to withstand what’s coming at us,” and on one occasion I said – I don’t want to get – I mean, I just – I’m uncomfortable sort of dragging it out, but I just think we made it very clear that unless we were listened to about policy and there was some greater response with respect to it, it was going to be very, very difficult for us to continue to stop, and perhaps even to vote against, a reasonable and balanced resolution. And I don’t want to go back and I don’t think we need to rehash that. We made it very clear. I made it very clear that day why we were doing what we were doing. We made it very clear afterwards. Samantha Power made it very clear. I made it very clear in countless interviews afterwards. And I think now we have to move on to the task of getting the parties to the table to try to change the conditions on the ground. And that was uniformly embraced today, which I haven’t seen previously in the same way, in a balanced way, changing things on the ground. It wasn’t just a one-sided screed.

I thought there were very – in fact, I came out to the staff and I commented to them that I was struck by how constructive all the comments were. It wasn’t the sort of bashing routine. It was a very thoughtful, legitimately substantive discussion of wanting to get back to the process. And when 70 countries come together, many of them most affected by the negative sides of this prolonged conflict – in the sense that their street is agitated, people are recruited on the basis of this, there is a frustration that grows within their politics, and that’s real for them on a daily basis. So the fact that they came in there as embracing of the principles and as clear about the desire to get the parties themselves to negotiate, I think is an important statement in the world. What would you rather have them do, say nothing? Would you rather have Gaza explode again and people go at each other and then everybody says, “Well, where was the leadership? Why didn’t people prevent this from happening? Why didn’t people talk about this incipient explosive situation?”

Well, we did talk about it, and talk is sometimes the currency of diplomacy, and you have to do that. But hopefully it can build a set of choices that are real. I don’t think that this is off – I don’t think the prospect of getting something done is impossible at all. Depends on who’s going to —

QUESTION: So you don’t think this is what Avigdor Lieberman called akin to the Dreyfus affair?


QUESTION: Avigdor Lieberman said he thought this conference today was the same as the – he compared it to the Dreyfus affair.

SECRETARY KERRY: I just very much disagree with that, obviously.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir. We got to get going. Thanks, guys.


QUESTION: Can you not talk –

MR KIRBY: Guys, we got to go.

SECRETARY KERRY: My comments stand.

QUESTION: Can I just talk about Syria?

MR KIRBY: Lesley, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: About – well, the Russians have invited you guys now to the —

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I’m sure – I hope people will go. I mean, we want —

QUESTION: Kirby, this is our last meeting forever.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s okay, Lesley. It’s fine. I hope people will go, but the problem is the meeting takes place with the new administration, so at the time of the new administration. So we’ve been supportive of this process. I want to make that clear. I’ve talked to Lavrov about it. I’ve talked to the Saudis about it. I’ve talked to the Qataris about it. I’ve talked to the Turks about it. And we’ve encouraged them; we’ve said this is good and we hope you can make some progress with it, and that will come to Geneva. And everybody has agreed this is not a substitute for the Geneva process. It’s a process to try to break forward.

So my hope is the next administration will decide to go. I think it would be good for them to be represented there. And I hope it can make some progress. Whatever happens with respect to this, I again say to you – I’ve said it before – what we did in the ISSG twice – and three times actually because we reiterated it in New York – but what we did with Resolution 2254 in the UN Security Council and what we did with the meetings over two years ago with the reaffirmation of the Geneva communique, et cetera, that approach will be ultimately the way in which this is resolved, i.e. there will be some kind of transitional effort. There will be a new constitution. There will be inclusivity for opposition and there will be a new political process, which will result in an election at some point in time. That will be what ultimately, I believe, will come out if there is – if there is, in fact, a serious intent to have a solution to Syria.


MR KIRBY: Thanks, guys. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Goodnight to everybody. Appreciate it.