John Kerry Expected to Visit Israel, PA in February

Israeli officials say U.S. Secretary of State nominee expected in Mideast to try to reignite peace process; during confirmation hearing in Washington, Kerry says he prays Israel election results will lead to renewed peace talks.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Senator John Kerry, U.S. President Barak Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, is expected to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority in February to see if the peace process can be restarted, senior Israeli officials told Haaretz on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Kerry reacted to Israel’s election at his confirmation hearing on Thursday, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying he prayed the next Israeli government would be open to his assistance as secretary of state in restaring peace talks with the Palestinians.

“There were elections yesterday and we still don’t know which government it’s going to be,” Kerry told the senators. “I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table and go down a different path than the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.”

Kerry told the senators he opposes continuing the unilateral moves of the Palestinians at the United Nations. He emphasized that the United States would oppose a Palestinian attempt to take Israel to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and views such a step as being extremely negative.

Kerry is expected soon to be confirmed routinely by the committee and shortly afterward by the full Senate. Two senior Israeli officials said Kerry is interested in visiting the Middle East as soon as possible, even before a new Israeli government is formed, to examine ways to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

No date has yet been set, said the officials, but it will take place in February. Kerry will visit Israel as part of a broad tour of the region, which will also include visits to Jordan, Egypt and possibly Saudi Arabia.

Ten days ago Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon met in Washington with a number of U.S. officials who are close to Kerry, said the Israeli official. Ayalon heard from the Americans that Kerry was interested in renewing American efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But at this stage Kerry will not appoint a special envoy for the peace process and will instead come personally to visit and evaluate the situation.

Kerry has yet to formulate his own peace plan, said the Israeli official, but he is interested in coming to the region as quickly as possible to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Israeli official.

“President Obama does not intend to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue personally, and will give Kerry full authority, independence and support on the matter,” said the Israeli official. “If Kerry thinks there is a chance for progress in the peace process he will invest personal effort in it and will come to the region frequently. But if he sees after a few visits that there is no will from the parties to progress, he will go and deal with other issues such as Africa or relations with China and Russia.”

The results of the Israeli election, and especially the showing of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, somewhat surprised Washington. The State Department and White House forecast a stronger showing by Netanyahu and a poorer showing by the center.

The U.S. administration doesn’t know Lapid at all except for a few meetings he held in recent months with U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro. But the White House is now following the coalition negotiations carefully. There are those in the administration, including Kerry, who see the election results as a golden opportunity to renew the peace process and make significant progress.

On the other hand, there are quite a few senior American officials who are more skeptical and think the election results will change nothing about Netanyahu’s management of the Palestinian issue, and only cause Israel to focus further on domestic affairs.

Meanwhile, Kerry also delivered a message to Iran during his confirmation hearing. “The President has made it definitive ? we will do what we can to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I repeat here today: our policy is not containment,” he said. “I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed. But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”

Kerry broke no new ground in his testimony, stressing his commitment to President Barack Obama’s policy of seeking a diplomatic solution to persuade Iran to give up its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. Kerry was asked about his position on negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program. He said the United States wants the Iranians to honor its international obligations.

“The president said he is ready to enter a bilateral dialogue. ... We all hope to make progress on the diplomatic front. I am saying this to the Iranians and I hope they are listening. It is not hard to prove that a nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. ... Other countries have done this. It takes strict inspections and clear standards. The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda. ... If their program is for peaceful purposes they can prove it and this is what we are seeking,” stressing that “intrusive inspections” are required.

The main vehicle for diplomacy with Iran has been talks between Tehran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, a group collectively known as the P5+1.

Kerry said “everybody’s very hopeful that we can make some progress on the diplomatic front now” and, without disclosing U.S. negotiating strategy, noted Obama had made clear his willingness to have direct negotiations with Iran if need be.

His critics have said Kerry has failed to seek tougher sanctions to discourage the Islamic Republic from pursuing its nuclear program, but the nominee signaled he was ready to keep the pressure on Tehran.

On Syria, Kerry said he thought President Bashar al-Assad’s actions against his country’s civilian population in the devastating civil war were “inexcusable,” adding that Assad on his way out. The nominee was asked about his previous outreach to Assad. As a senator, Kerry visited Damascus repeatedly prior to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war and was a proponent of U.S. reengagement with Assad. Kerry told the panel there had been a moment when Assad, impelled partly by of his desire to find jobs for his “burgeoning” youthful population, had an interest in improving relations with the United States, but that he missed the opportunity.

“He has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable, that are reprehensible and I think he is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria,” Kerry said.

In an unexpected exchange, Kerry found himself defending Obama’s controversial pick of Hagel to be the next defense secretary against GOP criticism. Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the panel, expressed concerns about Hagel’s support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons, a major issue for the Tennessee lawmaker and his home state. The Y-12 nuclear facility is located near Oak Ridge, Tenn., and any cuts would have an impact on local jobs. “I know Chuck Hagel. I think he is a strong patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense,” Kerry said of Hagel, who like Kerry served in Vietnam.

Sen. John Kerry during his Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, Jan. 24, 2013.Credit: AP

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