Secretary of State John Kerry is facing criticism after appearing to lay the blame on Israel for the near collapse of Middle East peace talks, a suggestion that led his spokeswoman to issue a clarification of his words.
At Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said that both the Israelis and Palestinians were responsible for “unhelpful” steps that scuttled the months of peace negotiations that he has spearheaded, but he seemed to place most of the blame on Israel.
"Both sides, whether advertently or inadvertently wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful," Kerry told the senators, according to Reuters.
Secretary of State Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss his budget and the status of diplomatic hot spots around the world. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Referring to a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners Israel had committed to release on March 29 but did not, Kerry said: "Unfortunately, the prisoners weren't released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released ... day (one) went by, day two went by, day three went by, and then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment."
Kerry was referring to the Israeli government’s approval of the construction of homes in east Jerusalem, an area Israel says is an integral part of its capital city that it will never hand to the Palestinians, who claim Jerusalem as their future capital.
The Israeli government did not release the final group of prisoners, who had been convicted of terrorist activities, after the Palestinian Authority demanded that several Arab citizens of Israel be included in the group. Palestinians officials also would not commit to an extension of peace talks beyond April.
Jonathan Tobin, senior editor of the conservative Commentary Magazine, took issue with Kerry’s “poof” comment.
“Poof? To say that this evaluation of the situation is disingenuous would be the understatement of the century,” Tobin wrote. “Kerry knows very well that the negotiations were doomed once the Palestinians refused to sign on to the framework for future talks he suggested even though it centered them on the 1967 lines that they demand as the basis for borders.”
Tobin noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said he would never recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” which would be an indication of his willingness to end the conflict, nor had he “budged an inch on a single issue.”
“Kerry doesn’t want to blame the Palestinians for walking out because to do so would be a tacit admission that his critics were right when they suggested last year that he was embarking on a fool’s errand,” Tobin added.
Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who has called Kerry’s foreign policy “delusional,” also made note of the parties Kerry blamed at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, posting this on Twitter:
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki clarified that Kerry was not trying to only blame Israel, saying, “As has been the case throughout this impasse, today, Secretary Kerry was again crystal clear that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game.”
“Today he even singled out by name [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout the process. Now it is up to the parties and their leaders to determine whether we maintain a productive path,” Psaki said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at the hearing, "The Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though you may drag them out for a while, are finished."
“My hope is the parties will find a way back. We're working with them to try to do so, but they have to ... make that fundamental decision, and I hope they will," Kerry said.
In apparent violation of an understanding while peace talks were underway, the Palestinian Authority last week signed onto 15 international treaties and conventions, a decision they view as another step toward recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
“The treaties were unhelpful, and we made that crystal clear to the Palestinians,” Kerry said.
It does not appear Kerry’s words encouraged the sides to try to break the impasse. Netanyahu on Wednesday instructed Israeli government ministries to halt civilian and economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in response to “Palestinian violations,” that is, signing onto the international treaties.
Wednesday’s order did not cover the Defense Ministry, which conducts security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team with the Palestinians.