Kerry says settlements endanger peace, Israel hits back

A general view shows a Star of David near buildings in the Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank

By Lesley Wroughton and Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Wednesday that Israel’s building of settlements was endangering Middle East peace, expressing unusually frank frustration with the long-time American ally.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shot back at Kerry and accused him of showing bias against the Jewish state.

In a 70-minute speech just weeks before the Obama administration hands over to President-elect Donald Trump, Kerry said Israel “will never have true peace” with the Arab world if it does not reach an accord based on Israelis and Palestinians living in their own states.

His remarks added to strain in the U.S.-Israeli relationship — characterized by personal acrimony between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu — after the United States cleared the way for a U.N. resolution last week that demanded an end to Israeli settlement building.

“Despite our best efforts over the years, the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy,” Kerry said at the State Department. “We cannot, in good conscience, do nothing, and say nothing, when we see the hope of peace slipping away.”

“The truth is that trends on the ground – violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation – are destroying hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want.”

Kerry condemned Palestinian violence which he said included “hundreds of terrorist attacks in the past year.”

His parting words are unlikely to change anything on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians or salvage the Obama administration’s record of failed Middle East peace efforts.

In a statement, Netanyahu said Kerry’s speech “was skewed against Israel.” The Israeli leader said Kerry “obsessively dealt with settlements” and barely touched on “the root of the conflict – Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries”.

The Israelis are looking past Obama and expect they will receive more favorable treatment from Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20. The Republican used his Twitter account on Wednesday to denounce the Obama administration, including its U.N. vote and the nuclear accord it reached with Iran last year.

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore,” Trump said in a series of tweets. “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

Trump had openly lobbied against the U.N. resolution and would be expected to veto any further ones deemed anti-Israel.

He has vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and has appointed as ambassador a lawyer who raised money for a major Jewish settlement, has cast doubt on the idea of a two-state solution and even advocated for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a notion even further to the right than Netanyahu’s own stance.


Kerry’s speech provided some insights into an issue that he personally feels passionate about and had hoped to resolve during his years as secretary of state.

He defended the U.S. decision to allow the passage of a U.N. resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, saying it was intended to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.

The United States abstained in the Dec. 23 U.N. resolution, in what many see as a parting shot by Obama who had an acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu.

Kerry vigorously defended the U.N. resolution and rejected criticism “that this vote abandons Israel”.

“It is not this resolution that is isolating Israel. It is the permanent policy of settlement construction that risks making peace impossible.”

In a pointed reply to Netanyahu who said last week that “Friends don’t take friends to the Security Council”, and who has insisted the Obama administration had orchestrated the resolution, Kerry hit back, saying: “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”

Kerry defended Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security and U.S. support for Israel in international platforms. Earlier this year, the United States and Israel agreed a $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Future of two-state solution in Mideast in jeopardy according to Kerry

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 23

By Lesley Wroughton and Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Wednesday that the future of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in jeopardy, and laid out parameters for future peace talks, saying the United States could not stay silent.

In a speech just weeks before the Obama administration hands over power to President-elect Donald Trump, Kerry defended the U.S. decision to allow the passage of a U.N. resolution last week demanding an end to Israeli settlements, saying it was intended to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.

“Despite our best efforts over the years, the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy,” Kerry said in a speech at the State Department. “We cannot, in good conscience, do nothing, and say nothing, when we see the hope of peace slipping away.”

“The truth is that trends on the ground – violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation – are destroying hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want.”

Kerry’s parting words are unlikely to change anything on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians or salvage the Obama administration’s record of failed Mideast peace efforts.

His impassioned speech comes less than a week after the United States abstained in the Dec. 23 U.N. resolution, in what many see as a parting shot by U.S. President Barack Obama who had an acrimonious relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump, who has vowed to pursue more pro-Israeli policies, had urged the United States to veto.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Israel postpones vote on new East Jerusalem homes before Kerry speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pulled back from approving hundreds of new homes for Israelis in annexed East Jerusalem on Wednesday before a speech in which the U.S. Secretary of State was to give further voice to international opposition to settlement building.

The projects, in areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians seek as part of a future state, are part of building activity the U.N. Security Council demanded an end to on Friday in a resolution made possible by a U.S. abstention.

John Kerry will discuss Washington’s withholding of its veto when he delivers a speech at the State Department at 11 a.m. ET (1600 GMT) laying out his vision for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a senior State Department official told reporters on Tuesday.

With applications for 492 building permits in the urban settlements of Ramot and Ramat Shlomo on its agenda, members of Jerusalem city hall’s Planning and Building committee said a planned vote was cancelled at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request.

The panel’s chairman, Meir Turgeman, said at the session that Netanyahu was concerned approval would have given Kerry “ammunition before the speech”.

A spokesman for the Israeli leader declined immediate comment.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called on Israel “to take the high ground and declare a cessation of settlement activities, including East Jerusalem, so we can give the peace process the chance it deserves by the resumption of meaningful negotiations”.


Washington’s move at the United Nations broke a longstanding policy of diplomatic shielding of Israel by the United States. Condemned by Israel as “shameful”, it was widely seen as a parting shot by President Barack Obama against Netanyahu and his pro-settlement policies.

The two leaders have had a rocky relationship, divided over the decades-old Israeli policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied territory as well as on how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Washington considers the settlement activity illegitimate and most countries view it as an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees, citing a biblical, historical and political connection to the land – which the Palestinians also claim – as well as security interests.

Some 570,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid mounting international concern that a two-state solution to the dispute is in jeopardy, with peace talks stalled since 2014.

“The prime minister said that while he supports construction in Jerusalem, we don’t have to inflame the situation any further,” Hanan Rubin, a member of the Jerusalem municipal committee told Reuters, citing Kerry’s upcoming speech.

The panel meets regularly and the building projects could come up for a vote at a future session.

Since learning last week of Kerry’s planned speech, Israeli officials have been concerned he might use the address to lay out parameters for a Middle East peace deal.

Netanyahu’s aides are confident Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration will likely ignore any Obama principles and pay no heed to the U.N. resolution. But they fear Kerry’s remarks will put Israel on the defensive and prompt other countries to apply pressure.

Trump tweeted his opposition to the U.S. decision to withhold a veto and lobbied Egypt, an original sponsor of the resolution, to drop plans to bring it to a vote last Thursday.

He has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital – a status that is not recognised internationally. And he has appointed his lawyer, who has raised funds for a major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as the new ambassador.

“Who’s Obama? He’s history,” Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said on Army Radio on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by John Stonestreet)

Another North Korea missile fails after launch, say U.S. and South

A ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) is seen at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on March 11, 2016. REUTERS / KCN

By Ju-min Park and Eric Walsh

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea test-fired a missile that failed immediately after launch early on Thursday, the U.S. and South Korean militaries said, hours after the two countries agreed to step up efforts to counter the North’s nuclear and missile threats.

The missile was believed to be an intermediate-range Musudan and was launched from the western city of Kusong, where the isolated state attempted but failed to launch the same type of missile on Saturday, the U.S. Strategic Command and South Korea’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The launch came shortly after the United States and South Korea agreed in Washington to bolster military and diplomatic efforts to counter the North’s nuclear and missile programs, which it is pursuing in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“We strongly condemn the North’s continued illegal acts of provocation,” the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

Japan condemned the launch and said it would make a formal protest to the North through its embassy in Beijing.

The failed missile launch was the eighth attempt in seven months by the North to launch a weapon with a design range of 3,000 km (1,800 miles) that can be fired from road mobile launchers, the two militaries said.

North Korea has been pursuing its nuclear and missile programs at an unprecedented pace this year.

In June, North Korea launched a Musudan missile that flew about 400 km (250 miles), more than half the distance to Japan, a flight that was considered a success by officials and experts in South Korea and the United States.

North Korea said on Thursday that it would continue to launch satellites despite its rival South’s objections, in a statement by its space agency carried by official media.


Pyongyang says it has a sovereign right to pursue a space program by launching rockets carrying satellites, most recently in February, although Washington and Seoul worry that such launches are long-range missile tests in disguise.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.

News of the North’s latest ballistic missile launch broke during the third and last U.S. presidential debate in which Republican candidate Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, exchanged sharply contrasting views on U.S. alliances.

Trump said U.S. defense treaties around the world, including with South Korea, had to be renegotiated because “we’re being ripped off by everybody in the world”.

Clinton said Trump wanted to tear up alliances that keep nuclear proliferation in check while she believed alliances make the world and the United States safer.

“I will work with our allies in Asia, in Europe, in the Middle East and elsewhere,” Clinton said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking before the failed missile launch, said the United States would do “whatever is necessary” to defend itself, South Korea and other allies against North Korea.

Kerry and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter reaffirmed that any attack by North Korea would be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons “met with an effective and overwhelming response,” a joint statement said.

As part of the military effort, Kerry said the United States would deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system to South Korea “as soon as possible”.

China strongly opposes deployment of the U.S. system, saying it would impinge on its own strategic deterrence.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, also speaking in Washington before the failed launch, said North Korea was nearing the “final stage of nuclear weaponisation” and the allies would mobilize “all tools in the toolkit” to defend themselves.

A U.S. aerospace expert, John Schilling, said this week in a report on the 38 North project that despite the failures, the pace of testing could enable the North to put the Musudan missile into operational service sometime next year.

(Editing by Jack Kim and Nick Macfie)

Kerry defends diplomacy as Russian-backed forces pound Aleppo

People dig in the rubble in an ongoing search for survivors at a site hit previously by an airstrike in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo,

By Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Barrington

CARTAGENA, Colombia/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended his efforts to negotiate with Moscow over the war in Syria on Monday, despite the collapse of a ceasefire that has led to a massive Russian-backed assault on the besieged rebel-held sector of Aleppo.

Medical supplies were running out in eastern Aleppo, with victims pouring into barely functioning hospitals as Russia and its ally President Bashar al-Assad ignored Western pleas to stop the bombing of the last major urban area in opposition hands.

Moscow and Damascus launched their assault last week despite months of negotiations led by Kerry that resulted in a short-lived ceasefire this month. The secretary of state’s diplomatic overtures to Moscow had faced scepticism, including from other senior officials within the U.S. administration.

Kerry said his failed ceasefire was not the cause of the fighting, and the only way to stop the war was to talk. He lashed back at critics, including Republican senator John McCain, who described him last week as “intrepid but delusional” for putting too much faith in Russia.

“The cause of what is happening is Assad and Russia wanting to pursue a military victory,” Kerry told reporters during a trip to Colombia. “Today there is no ceasefire and we’re not talking to them right now. And what’s happening? The place is being utterly destroyed. That’s not delusional. That’s a fact.”

The Syrian government offensive to recapture all of Aleppo, with Russian air support and Iranian help on the ground, has been accompanied by bombing that residents describe as unprecedented in its ferocity.

Some 250,000 civilians remain trapped in the besieged, opposition-held sector of Syria’s biggest city. Hundreds of people, including dozens of children, have been reported killed since Thursday night by an onslaught that includes bunker-busting bombs that bring down whole buildings.

In a tense confrontation at the United Nations over the weekend, the United States called Russia’s bombing in support of Assad “barbarism”, and said Russia was killing civilians, medical staff and aid workers.

Moscow and Damascus say they are bombing only militants, although video from Aleppo has repeatedly shown small children being dug out of the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Inside the rebel-held sector of what was once Syria’s largest city, there are only about 30 doctors left, coping with scores of fresh wounded every day.

“Aleppo city’s hospitals are overwhelmed with wounded people … Things are starting to run out,” said Aref al-Aref, an intensive care medical worker, who spoke from Aleppo.

“We are unable to bring anything in … not equipment and not even medical staff. Some medical staff are in the countryside, unable to come in because of the siege,” he said.

Bebars Mishal, a civil defense worker in rebel-held Aleppo, said overnight bombardment continued until 6 a.m. (0300 GMT).

“It’s the same situation. Especially at night, the bombardment intensifies, it becomes more violent, using all kinds of weapons, phosphorous and napalm and cluster bombs,” Mishal told Reuters.

“Now, there’s just the helicopter, and God only knows where it will bomb. God knows which building will collapse,” he said. “Everybody is scared … unable to go out. They don’t know what to do, or where to go.”

Russia and Assad appear to have abandoned diplomacy last week, betting instead on delivering a decisive military blow against the president’s enemies on the battlefield. Capturing rebel districts of Aleppo would be the biggest victory of the war so far for Assad, crushing the revolt in its last major urban stronghold.


Indicating there would be no respite soon, the Syrian army issued a statement reiterating its call for civilians to steer clear of rebel positions and bases in eastern Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring body, says at least 237 people, including at least 38 children, have been killed in Aleppo and nearby countryside since the army declared the end of the ceasefire a week ago. Civil defense workers in opposition territory put the death toll at 400.

The rebel-held sector of Aleppo is completely encircled, making it impossible to receive supplies. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity group said this week in a statement that only 30 doctors remained inside.

“We have patients who will die in the dozens if they are not evacuated,” Osama Abo Ezz, a general surgeon and Aleppo coordinator for SAMS, told Reuters, speaking from an area near Aleppo.

“The medical staff is insufficient and completely exhausted. The blood bank refrigerators are completely empty. Vital medicines have almost run out. The ICU beds are insufficient and always full. The CT scanner is out of order,” he said.

Residents say the air strikes are using more powerful bombs than ever. A Syrian military source told Reuters on Saturday that weapons were being used that could destroy rebel tunnels and bunkers, dug out during years of opposition control.

A water pumping station serving eastern Aleppo has been destroyed. A spokesman for the World Health Organisation said a technical mission was visiting it to assess damage.

“We don’t know how long it will take to restore the functionality,” said the spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic.

Rescue efforts during the bombing have been hampered because damage has made roads impassable and because civil defense centers and rescue equipment have themselves been struck.


Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war between Assad’s government and insurgents, and 11 million driven from their homes. Much of the east of the country is now in the hands of Islamic State fighters, the enemies of all other sides.

Since Russia joined the war a year ago to support Assad’s government, the administration of President Barack Obama has been engaged in intensive diplomacy with Moscow, trying to end the war between the government and most insurgent groups and turn the focus toward the common fight against Islamic State.

But the latest escalation has left U.S. Syria policy in tatters, all but destroying any hope of a breakthrough before Obama leaves office next year.

The Kremlin said on Monday tough Western condemnation might hinder any resolution to the crisis. Moscow saw “absolutely no prospect” for holding a summit on Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Moscow blames Washington for the failure of the ceasefire, arguing that the United States failed to prevent rebels from using the truce to regroup.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Peter Graff and Tom Perry; editing by Andrew Roche)

Kerry defends $400 million payment to Iran, says U.S. does not pay ransoms

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attends the Central Asia Ministerial at the Department of State in Washington

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday defended the Obama administration’s payment of $400 million in cash to Iran, denying it was a ransom for the release of American prisoners by Tehran.

“The United States does not pay ransoms,” Kerry told a news conference in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. He said the payment, which was part of a longstanding Iranian claim at the Iran-US Claims Tribunal in The Hague, was negotiated on a separate track from the Iran nuclear deal.

(Reporting by Gram Slatery. Writing by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Alden Bentley)

Kerry warns Assad of repercussions if truce, transition fails

Journalists and civilians stand near the damage after rockets fired by insurgents hit the al-Dabit maternity clinic in government-held parts of Aleppo city

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday of “repercussions” if he does not stick to a ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States and move forward with a political transition aimed at ending Syria’s war.

But Kerry said he still hoped diplomatic efforts could restore a nationwide Feb. 27 ceasefire to include Aleppo, which has felt the brunt of increased fighting in recent weeks.

“If Assad does not adhere to this, there will clearly be repercussions, and one of them may be the total destruction of the ceasefire and then go back to war,” Kerry told reporters a day after emergency meetings in Geneva.

“I don’t think Russia wants that. I don’t think Assad is going to benefit from that. There may be even other repercussions being discussed,” he added.

It was unclear what Kerry meant by repercussions. Obama administration officials previously warned of consequences for Assad’s action in the country’s long-running civil war, but critics say Washington has failed to follow through with a more aggressive response.

Obama warned earlier in the conflict against the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces, setting a red line that would trigger U.S. military action. But he backed away from a threatened bombing campaign.

Kerry said that without a ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the civil war erupted in 2011, the violence there was in danger of spiraling out of control. The plan now being worked on to ensure a more lasting ceasefire would try to separate rival forces from militias, which are not covered by the ceasefire.

“The line they are trying to draw now would prohibit any kind of incursion of Aleppo, it will not allow Aleppo to fall,” Kerry said. He added that the truce was holding in areas of Damascus and Latakia region where he said there had been a “meaningful” drop in violence.

Kerry said the United States was trying to determine which opposition group was responsible for a rocket attack on a hospital in Aleppo on Tuesday, saying there was no justification for such “horrific violence.”

He repeated the United States would never accept a transition that included Assad.

“If Assad’s strategy is to somehow think he’s going to just carve out Aleppo and carve out a section of the country, I got news for you and for him – this war doesn’t end,” Kerry said.

“It is physically impossible for Assad to just carve out an area and pretend he is somehow going to make it safe while the underlying issues are unresolved in this war.”

(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)