LONDON — Even the so-called special relationship is subject to limits, it seems.
Looking ahead to the advent of a Republican administration under Donald J. Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain scolded Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday night for his speech criticizing Israel, a public jab that would have been highly unlikely at any other time during the Obama administration.
Mrs. May chided Mr. Kerry for describing the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the “most right-wing in Israel’s history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements,” and she suggested that Mr. Kerry’s intense focus on Israeli settlement expansion was too narrow for a complicated conflict.
Mrs. May does “not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” a spokesman for the prime minister said, using the department’s customary anonymity. “The government believes that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.”
Mr. Trump has publicly disparaged the Obama administration, which has 20 days left in office, for abstaining last week in a Security Council vote on a resolution calling all Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 armistice lines “illegal.” He was also critical of Mr. Kerry’s end-of-term speech defending the two-state solution and calling for an end to Israeli settlement activity that undermines that possibility.
Mr. Trump defended Mr. Netanyahu and his government, urging them in a post on Twitter to “stay strong” until his inauguration next month.
Mrs. May, who leads a Conservative government, has been trying, with mixed success, to make inroads with the incoming Trump administration. Mr. Trump has suggested that she appoint Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and a high-profile advocate of a British exit from the European Union, as Britain’s ambassador to Washington, a suggestion Mrs. May firmly rejected.
Mr. Trump considers Mr. Farage, who campaigned alongside him, and the British vote for a withdrawal as a harbinger of his own victory against expectations and the status quo. But Mr. Farage is not a favorite among Conservatives, even among those who strongly supported a withdrawal in the June referendum.
The British government has been working with Trump aides on an early visit to the White House by Mrs. May, to show the continuing strength of British-American ties. Kim Darroch, the British ambassador in Washington, has said that Mrs. May and Mr. Trump want to “build on the legacy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.”
Relations with the Obama administration have not always been smooth, with major disagreements over Syria policy and military spending, but the two countries are close, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing and NATO.
Still, the comments on Thursday night represented an extraordinary public rebuke to such a close ally, even if Mr. Obama is about to exit the scene, and Britain clearly wants to maintain ties to Israel and its elected government.
The issue was not about the legality of the settlements. The British government voted in favor of the Security Council resolution because Britain, like other European members of the Council, has long considered the settlements beyond 1967 lines to be illegal.
“But we are also clear that the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict,” Mrs. May’s spokesman said. “In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long.”
In fact, while Mr. Kerry concentrated on the settlement issue, he also spoke of the need for Israelis to live with security, and he criticized Palestinians as not doing enough to combat terrorism.
Mr. Kerry’s speech, and the American abstention, were praised by other European nations, including France and Germany. So the British slap was something of a shock to Washington.
“We are surprised by the U.K. Prime Minister’s office statement, given that Secretary Kerry’s remarks — which covered the full range of threats to a two-state solution, including terrorism, violence, incitement and settlements — were in line with the U.K.’s own longstanding policy and its vote at the United Nations last week,” the State Department said in a statement.
It also expressed gratitude for supportive statements from a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East, including Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and others.
Correction: December 30, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of the party formerly led by Nigel Farage. It is the U.K. Independence Party, not U.K. Independent Party.
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