Kerry says he expects Mideast talks to proceed despite latest tensions


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to government officials during a lunch at Itamary Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, on Tuesday. (Evaristo Sa/AP)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry indicated Tuesday that West Bank construction plans announced by Israel this week do not violate agreements made before the launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and said he expects the two sides to meet Wednesday as scheduled.

When the U.S.-orchestrated talks were agreed to last month, Kerry said, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was completely upfront with me and with [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas that he would be announcing some additional building that would take place in places that will not affect the peace map, that will not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement.”

Kerry, after a 30-minute phone conversation with Netanyahu, said he had reminded the Israeli leader of U.S. policy that “all settlements . . . are illegitimate.”

“He has specifically agreed not to disturb what might be the potential for peace going forward,” Kerry said.

After investing months and considerable prestige in arranging the talks, Kerry seemed to be bending over backward to ensure that the initial round begins as scheduled in Jerusalem. “There are realities within life in Israel that also have to be taken into account,” he said, apparently referring to strong opposition to peace negotiations within Netanyahu’s shaky political coalition. “Abbas understood that coming into these talks.”

Although some Palestinian leaders have urged Abbas to cancel the Wednesday session between high-level negotiators, Kerry said that “he is committed to continue to come to this negotiation.” Kerry said he expected to speak directly to Abbas later Tuesday.

The issue of Israel’s West Bank settlements has interfered with a number of previous peace efforts, with new construction announcements frequently coming on the eve of talks. Kerry has pressed both sides to avoid provocative steps and to concentrate on the final status of borders, with a nine-month deadline to reach agreement.

“If you resolve the borders,” he said Tuesday, “you have resolved any questions about settlements, because then you know what is in Israel and what is not.”

Since Sunday, after earlier agreeing at Kerry’s urging to release 104 longtime Palestinian prisoners, Israel has announced plans for up to 3,000 new housing units on the West Bank. Some of the plans, with only preliminary local approval, are a long way from construction. Others are projects that the government approved before the current round of peace talks were arranged. In both cases, the United States has concluded that Netanyahu has not violated his agreement with Kerry and the Palestinians.

Late Tuesday, Israeli authorities put 26 Palestinian prisoners on windowless buses to be delivered to their homes and supporters in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Arrested between 1985 and 2001, all were serving long sentences for murdering or attempting to kill Israeli citizens, tourists, security guards and suspected Palestinian collaborators.

In the West Bank Palestinian village of Azmout, the parents of Mohammed Sawalha were dressed in white wedding finery, anticipating the release of their son and his cousin Hosni, who were both 17 when they carried out a lethal knife attack on an Israeli bus in 1990.

Hassam Sawalha, a brother of Hosni, expressed sympathy for the victim’s family but said the two prisoners had spent 23 years in jail in punishment for a crime committed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

“These boys were defending our land and our dignity. Palestinians were also being killed left and right. Do the Israelis feel sorry for us?” he said.

Families of Israeli victims have said this is no way to begin a peace process — by releasing people they call terrorists and killers.

Despite the releases, however, many Palestinian leaders, and many Israelis who support the talks, see the settlement announcements as timed to torpedo the negotiations before they begin.

A Tuesday editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that Netanyahu “pushes the envelope of Palestinian understanding” and that the announced approvals “seem to represent the hope for a targeted assassination of the opening of the peace talks after every other effort to stop them has failed.”

The new Middle East problems came as Kerry confronted a separate challenge during a two-day visit to South America. In a joint news conference here, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that if questions about the interception of Brazilian electronic and telephone communications by the U.S. National Security Agency are not resolved, “we run the risk of casting a shadow of distrust” over the wide range of bilateral issues with the United States.

Revelations that South American countries were targets of NSA surveillance disclosed by former agency contractor Edward Snowden have particularly angered Brazil, which has called for a U.N. investigation. We need to discontinue practices” that violate sovereignty and individual freedoms, Patriota said in the news conference with Kerry.

Kerry, who faced similar, if less strident, questions during a stop in Colombia on Monday, was asked point-blank by a reporter from the Brazilian newspaper
O Globo whether the United States intends to “stop spying” on the rest of the world. The paper published the initial revelations of surveillance in South America last month.

Saying that Brazil was “owed answers,” Kerry repeated President Obama’s insistence in Washington last week that the surveillance program is a valuable counter­terrorism tool, conducted legally with congressional and judicial approval and oversight.

Kerry promised a continuing dialogue “with a view to making certain that your government is in complete understanding and complete agreement with what it is that we think we must do to provide security not just for Americans, but for Brazilians” and others, and he appealed to Brazilians to stay focused on “the important realities of our relationship.”

Both Kerry and Patriota praised the strong U.S.-Brazilian trade and investment ties, as well as the two countries’ shared commitment to democracy, the environment and educational and tourist exchanges. Kerry lauded Brazil’s participation in international peace-making.

Although Brazil’s ire over the surveillance is considerable — and President Dilma Rousseff probably welcomes a distraction from domestic economic and political pressures — neither country wants to set a negative tone for her scheduled trip to Washington in October. She is the only state leader Obama will host this year.

William Booth in Jerusalem and Sufian Taha in Azmout, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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