John Kerry takes the helm at State, signals early push on peace in Middle East

February 4, 2013

New Secretary of State John F. Kerry is signaling an early push to rekindle Middle East peace talks, making lengthy telephone calls to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders even before starting work at the State Department on Monday.

Arriving for his first day in an office he has long coveted, Kerry told State Department employees that they have a fortunate mission.

“We get to try to make our nation safer. We get to try to make peace in the world, a world where there is far too much conflict, far too much killing,” he told hundreds of staffers gathered to greet him in the lobby of the department’s headquarters. “There are alternatives.”

Kerry, who was sworn in late Friday as the nation’s 68th secretary of state, is expected to focus heavily on security and diplomatic challenges in the Middle East. In the near term, these include the grinding civil war in Syria and the prospect of direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

But he promised during his confirmation hearing last month that he would also bring new diplomatic focus to the stalled effort to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“We need to try to find a way forward, and I happen to believe that there is a way forward,” Kerry told his former Senate colleagues at the hearing. “But I also believe that if we can’t be successful, the door, window, whatever you want to call it, to the possibility of a two-state solution could shut on everybody, and that would be disastrous.”

Kerry made a round of telephone calls over the weekend to foreign leaders and diplomats. Among them were Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom he knows well. He also spoke with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Describing the calls, the State Department said that Kerry reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and to pursuing “a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Kerry applauded the Israeli decision last week to unfreeze some Palestinian tax revenue, and he told Abbas he will work to overcome congressional opposition to the release of nearly $500 million in U.S. aid to the cash-poor Palestinian Authority.

“There was a very early contact with both sides to express a commitment to continuing to support them in getting back to the table with each other,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

Kerry is widely expected to travel to Israel and neighboring countries soon, perhaps in his symbolic first official trip as secretary. The State Department has not announced any travel, but Israeli media have been reporting on Kerry’s expected visit since before he took office.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders collapsed early in President Obama’s first term, with each side blaming the other.

During his Senate hearing, Kerry was cautious about taking any position on the most difficult issues facing Israel and the Palestinians if they return to talks. Among those issues are borders, the fate of Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinians and their descendants to return to land where they lived before Israel’s founding.

“I’m not going to say anything that prejudices our ability to try to get a negotiation moving in the appropriate way, in the appropriate manner, and I’m not even going to go into what that is,” Kerry said.

Kerry is spending most of this first week on the job getting acquainted with the sprawling State Department building and its staff. The department has announced no major public events for him other than his formal swearing-in Wednesday.

Among Kerry’s other calls over the weekend and on Monday were conversations with foreign ministers from Japan, South Korea, Germany, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Britain and France, the State Department said. Most are people Kerry knows from his long tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Exhilarating to walk into @StateDept today and get to work with remarkable team,” Kerry tweeted Monday. The son of a Foreign Service officer who served in partitioned Berlin in the 1950s, he added: “Dad on mind! –JK .”

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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