JERUSALEM — Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday condemned recent Palestinian attacks as terrorism and declared that Israel has “every right in the world to defend itself” as he wrapped up a one-day visit to Israel and the West Bank.
Kerry said he was concerned the violence would spin out of control, noting the two sides are now at a “pivotal point” where choices made could advance the chances for peace.
During a day of meetings with Israeli leaders, Kerry’s public statements were calibrated to show strong support for Israel as it confronts new unrest and to say nothing that Palestinians could construe as encouragement for pursuing violence to achieve independence. In the evening, he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Kerry told reporters traveling with him that although the two sides were in no mood for concessions, he hoped to prod them toward concrete moves to calm tensions after two months of attacks, which prompted his first visit to Israel in more than a year.
“I know that the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, in Gaza is, at this moment, very dire, that there are extraordinary concerns, obviously, about the violence,” he said after two hours of talks with Abbas.
Kerry said he had come at President Obama’s behest “to see what we can do to try to help contribute to calm and to restore people’s confidence in the ability of a two-state solution to still be viable.” A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a longtime objective of U.S. policy in the region.
Clashes over a holy Jerusalem site revered by both Muslims and Jews ignited the ongoing wave of stabbings, shootings and vehicular assaults, with the death toll rising almost daily. Since Oct. 1, about 100 Palestinians and 22 people of Israeli or other nationality have been killed.
Massachusetts teenager Ezra Schwartz was fatally shot last week in the southern West Bank. Referring to the 18-year-old victim as “my citizen,” Kerry said he had phoned the youth’s parents Monday night to offer condolences.
In a sign that Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not see the situation in exactly the same way despite the former’s words of support, their offices’ brief accounts of the talks emphasized different aspects. The State Department said the two had discussed ways to stop the violence and “improve conditions on the ground.” Netanyahu’s office said the talks focused on steps “to end the wave of terror against Israeli citizens and return the quiet and stability.”
Netanyahu, who has compared the Palestinian attackers to Islamic State militants, welcomed Kerry by asserting that Israel is fighting a “battle of civilization against barbarism” and vowing that “there can be no peace when we have an onslaught of terror.”
Kerry, in turn, directly addressed the belief among many Israelis that the world shrugs off violence against them compared with global reaction to terrorist attacks on civilians elsewhere.
“Today I express my complete condemnation for any act of terror that takes innocent lives and disrupts the day-to-day life of a nation,” he said, as Netanyahu nodded. “Israel has every right in the world to defend itself and has an obligation to defend itself. And it will and it is.”
Kerry made similar remarks before meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who said Israelis and Palestinians “can and must show the world we can live together in peace.” Afterward, Kerry wrote in a guest book: “The United States stands proudly with our ally and friend. May we find peace together.”
The latest wave of violence, however, appears to have hardened Israeli resolve. Israeli officials are planning tough new measures, including more security checks of Palestinian drivers and the revocation of work permits for the families of assailants.
Several Israeli news accounts on Tuesday said Kerry and Netanyahu had discussed Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank, which the United States considers an obstacle to peace. According to the reports, Netanyahu told Kerry that Israel will not freeze the construction and demanded recognition of the settlements if Israel adopts measures to ease the lives of Palestinians.
An analysis by the Israeli security service Shin Bet has concluded that the recent attacks have been carried out by lone wolves, driven at least in part by a sense that they face discrimination and in part by economic, personal and psychological problems.
“For some terrorists, attacks allow an escape from a bleak reality which they perceive as unchangeable,” said the analysis, which also accused Palestinian Authority officials of incitement.
Kerry’s remarks during his meetings with Netanyahu and Rivlin directly rebutted the common Palestinian narrative that the attacks are acts of resistance against Israeli occupation.
“We all have a responsibility to condemn that violence, to make it clear that no frustration, no politics, no ideology, no emotion justifies taking innocent lives,” he said.
On Monday, the U.N. International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Abbas accused Israel of conducting “extrajudicial killings” of Palestinians and seeking to change the status quo at the Jerusalem compound that Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. Israel has vehemently denied that it seeks to alter a decades-old agreement allowing Jews to visit but not pray at the site.