The US State Department on Wednesday attempted to clarify Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments seemingly placing the onus on Jerusalem for the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, saying he was merely describing the chronology of events, not blaming Israel.
According to a statement put out by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s office, Kerry’s clarification came during a meeting between the two men in Washington on Wednesday.
Before that meeting, Kerry’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on the Israeli media to put Kerry’s comments in proper context.
“He was frankly surprised by the coverage of his comments,” Psaki told reporters on Wednesday at the State Department. “He doesn’t believe... that one side deserves blame over another.”
In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Kerry lauded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the brave political decisions he has made in the peace process, Psaki said. She cited the secretary’s characterization of Palestinian actions as “clearly unhelpful.”
“What he did yesterday was simply restate the chronology of events of last week which took place,” she added.
She said that Kerry stands by his statement as intended.
Psaki’s comments came after an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Israel was “deeply disappointed” by Kerry’s comments to the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry, in what is being dubbed in Jerusalem the “poof speech,” implied that the diplomatic process went “poof” last Tuesday after Israel announced a tender to build 700 “settlement” housing units in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, over the Green Line. This three days after Israel failed to meet the March 29 deadline for releasing the final batch of 26 Palestinian security prisoners.
The anonymous official speaking to The New York Times, said, however, that it was the Palestinians who “violated their fundamental commitments” to the diplomatic process by applying last week to join 15 international conventions and treaties.
“Secretary Kerry knows that it was the Palestinians who said ‘no’ to continued direct talks with Israel in November; who said ‘no’ to his proposed framework for final-status talks; who said ‘no’ to even discussing recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; who said ‘no’ to a meeting with Kerry himself; and who said ‘no’ to an extension of the talks,” the official said.
“At the same time, in the understandings reached prior to the talks, Israel did not commit to any limitation on construction.
Therefore, the Palestinian claim that building in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, was a violation of the understandings is contrary to the facts. Both the American negotiating team and the Palestinians know full well that Israel made no such commitment,” the official in the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Amid the flap over his testimony, Kerry hosted Liberman at the State Department on Wednesday, where the American and Israeli counterparts both reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process despite recent setbacks.
Striking a conciliatory tone, Liberman told Kerry that “everyone in Israel knows that you are a true friend.”
He added that “unilateral” steps taken by the Palestinians “only undermine all our efforts.”
Earlier in the day, Liberman met for lunch on Capitol Hill with leadership from the Senate committee that hosted Kerry in its hearing on Tuesday. Aides told The Jerusalem Post that the secretary's testimony— including his statement on settlements— was not a topic of conversation during the lunch, which was closed to the press.
Beyond the remarks made to the Times, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office were not commenting on Kerry’s comments, in an apparent effort to make their displeasure widely known, without belaboring the point.
Kerry’s comments did seem, however, to have taken Jerusalem by surprise, as government officials claimed repeatedly over the past few weeks that the US knew very well the steps Israel has taken to move the talks forward, and that it also knew that the Palestinians were not showing any flexibility.
While Kerry’s finger-pointing at Israel has not yet led to similar European denunciations, Jerusalem is concerned about that happening, and that this will make extending the talks with the PLO more difficult.
Kerry’s comments “will both hurt the negotiations and harden Palestinian positions,” the official said, reflecting a concern in Jerusalem that if the Palestinians believe the international community will blame Israel, they will be even more inflexible then they have proven to be until now.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu directed his ministers and the directors-general of the government’s ministries not to have meetings with their Palestinian counterparts, in response to the Palestinian decision to apply to the international treaties and conventions.
One official, who said the Palestinian move was “in direct violation of their commitments,” clarified that Netanyahu’s directive does not apply to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians, or to those working with the Palestinians on security issues.
One official in the Prime Minister’s Office was vague regarding whether this directive was applicable to coordination with the Palestinians regarding goods and material allowed into, and out of, the Gaza Strip.
Among the offices most affected by the directive will be the Finance, Tourism, Agriculture, Environment Protection and Regional Cooperation ministries.
Explaining the move, one official said that Israel “wants to move forward in the talks, but if the Palestinians choose the unilateral path, we will respond. They have to understand that ultimately it is not in their interests.”
During her briefing, Psaki called this move “unfortunate,” and encouraged both parties to take steps “conducive” to the peace process.
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