U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said a two-state solution is essential for peace between the Palestinians and Israel, as the U.S. administration defended a controversial United Nations vote.
Kerry's speech on December 28 came amid an increasingly bitter standoff between President Barack Obama's administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Long uneasy relations between Obama and Netanyahu took a sharp turn for the worse last week when the United States abstained from a UN Security Council vote condemning new settlements pushed by Netanyahu's government.
The resolution, which called the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a violation of international law, was slammed by Netanyahu, who accused Washington of colluding with the Palestinians in drafting it.
"The two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians," Kerry told an audience of diplomats and policymakers at the State Department in Washington.
"It is the only way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state living in peace and security with its neighbors. It is the only way to ensure a future, freedom, and dignity for the Palestinian people. And it is an important way of advancing United States' interests in the region," he said.
Kerry leveled direct criticism at some elements of Israeli politics, in particular what he said were groups pushing an extremist agenda, including the "settler agenda."
"No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of the threat settlements pose to peace," he said.
"The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: greater Israel," he said.
Shortly after Kerry's speech concluded, Netanyahu lashed back, accusing Kerry of being obsessed with the issue of settlements.
"Like the Security Council resolution that Secretary Kerry advanced in the UN, his speech tonight was skewed against Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement issued by his office.
"For over an hour, Kerry obsessively dealt with settlements and barely touched upon the root of the conflict -- Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries," he said.
The speech comes amid a vocal push-back from the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, whose mounting criticism of Obama has upended years of protocol surrounding the transition from one U.S. president to another.
Trump doesn't take office until January 20, but he and Obama have been poking at one another over major policy differences, including relations with Israel.
Before Kerry's speech, Trump posted a series of critical messages on Twitter accusing Obama of treating Israel with "total disdain," and promising a different approach to ties with Israel.
"We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect," he said in a two-part message. "They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but...not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!"
Those posts brought an eyebrow-raising response from Netanyahu himself that, also coming ahead of Kerry's speech, further highlighted the rift with the Obama administration and the unusually public nature of the diplomatic dispute:
"President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!" Netanyahu said in a Twitter message.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters