Kerry tells Israelis, Palestinians to ‘stay focused on the prize’


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday. (JIM YOUNG/REUTERS)
May 24, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday that he hopes Israel will refrain from further Jewish settlement expansion on land Palestinians claim for a future state, although he would not say whether he has asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement home building, the major obstacle to peace talks.

“I’m not going to comment on what was asked for or not asked for,” Kerry told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv at the end of a two-day visit shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He was headed to Ethi­o­pia for the next leg of his overseas trip.

Kerry called on Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from “provocative” actions that could derail U.S. attempts to inaugurate a new round of peace talks. He reiterated U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement building but said the issue should not be a blockade to talks. Settlements, like other long-standing irritants and disagreements, will have to be resolved in a final peace deal, Kerry said.

“We are trying to get to talks without preconditions,” he said. “We do not want to get stuck in a place where we are arguing about a particular substantive issue that is actually part of a final settlement, and that argument takes you so long that you never get to the negotiations that bring about the final settlement.”

The chief U.S. diplomat also briefly addressed next month’s presidential elections in Iran and the decision by the Islamic republic’s powerful Guardian Council to bar two leading moderates from running.

“I can’t think of anybody in the world looking at Iran’s election who wouldn’t be amazed by a process by which an unelected Guardian Council, which is unaccountable to the Iranian people, has actually disqualified hundreds of candidates, potential candidates, according to very vague criteria which the Iranian people are not privileged to know or judge by,” Kerry said.

He said the list of candidates was narrowed to “officials of their choice, based solely on who represents the regime’s interests.”

Kerry has visited Israel and the West Bank four times in the past three months, trying to capi­tal­ize on his deep personal ties in the region and the elbow room of President Obama’s second term to launch another attempt at a comprehensive peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. In his meetings with Israelis, he said, he “appropriately” raised the issue of a recent Israeli court decision that retroactively approved settlements previously deemed illegal.

The United States understands that settlement expansions “can be deemed by some to be provocative, and they are not necessarily constructive with respect to the process” of resuming talks, Kerry said. “So, it is our hope that there will be a minimal effort there.”

Although some building is beyond the direct control of Netanyahu’s government, the timing of other construction is within the government’s power, Kerry said. Avoiding such construction could “make a difference here in the next months,” when substantial negotiations could begin, he added.

“Peace is actually possible, notwithstanding the doubts that some people have because of past disappointments,” Kerry said. “It is our hope that everybody will stay focused on the prize, focused on the goal.”

The Obama administration believes that direct negotiations are the only solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry said, and that the status quo of perpetual standoff is not sustainable. The goal is an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, something former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also tried to help broker. Both of those attempts at negotiation fell apart, leaving each side blaming the other for missed opportunities.

Kerry announced no date for new talks and said there is no deadline for such an announcement. Palestinians have said they regard early June as the deadline and could renew a bid for membership in the International Criminal Court if talks fizzle. Israel fears that membership in such a body would allow the Palestinian Authority to get international backing for an anti-Israeli agenda.

“We are reaching the time where leaders need to make hard decisions,” Kerry said.

Kerry is keeping details of his proposals quiet, and it is difficult to determine from his public rhetoric what he intends to do differently. Israeli and Palestinian officials say privately that he has offered versions of past proposals for goodwill concessions at the start of talks. From there the two sides, with U.S. help, would begin a period of negotiation on the critical issues of borders of the future state and the demand from Palestinians that they or their descendants be allowed to return to land vacated when Israel was created.

Kerry is winning some admiration for his energetic efforts, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been circumspect about their willingness to bargain under the terms Kerry wants.

Kerry’s work on the issue, much of it done in personal phone calls or one-on-one meetings, represents the most sustained U.S. peacemaking effort since the closing months of the Bush administration in 2008. Then, as now, U.S. and Israeli leaders said the “window” for lasting peace is rapidly closing.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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