US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to blame Israel on Tuesday for dissolving a deal that would have extended negotiations with the Palestinians for nine months.
At issue was the announcement of tenders for 700 homes in the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, over the green line, Kerry explained to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry walked committee members through the steps that had led to last week’s crisis in the talks – beginning with a decision by Israel to delay a promised release of 26 Palestinian prisoners who had been involved in past terrorist attacks, unless the negotiations continued beyond the April 29 end-date.
Both sides worked toward a deal to make that happen, Kerry said.
“A day 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,” he said.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki immediately tried to allay any misunderstandings of Kerry’s stance and explained that both Israel and the Palestinians were culpable.
“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,” Psaki said. “Today, he even singled out by name Prime Minister [Binyamin] 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.”
But Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) heard the negative implications in Kerry’s comments and responded immediately.
“Israel will never apologize for building in Jerusalem,” Bennett said.
"I heard someone has decided building in Jerusalem is the reason for the breakdown in the talks with the Palestinians. For many years people tried to prevent us from living in the eternal capital of the Jewish people, but it won't happen."
"Building in Jerusalem is Zionism," he added.
On Saturday night, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni gave a narrative similar to Kerry’s when describing how the talks had fallen apart. She blamed Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, whose office published the tenders, as well as his Bayit Yehudi Party.
Ariel said on Tuesday night that Kerry’s comments were predictable.
“When there are ministers who take the trouble to mention 1,000 times that we’re at fault, people on the other side of the ocean listen and repeat those things,” he said.
Neither Livni nor Netanyahu responded to Kerry’s comments.
An Israeli official remarked, however, that in every past peace plan it had been understood that Gilo would remain within Israel’s borders. He said that these particular tenders had already been published in the past and had been republished last week.
Kerry made the comments hours before he was scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama to discuss his country’s future involvement in the peace process. On Wednesday, Kerry is scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in Washington.
In the past few days, the US has stepped up its efforts to rescue the situation. Its envoy in Israel Martin Indyk met Sunday night and again on Monday with Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Psaki said of Monday’s meeting that negotiators had continued the intensive effort to resolve their differences.
“Gaps remain, but both sides are committed to narrow the gaps,” she said.
At the Foreign Relations Committee, however, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) told Kerry that while he may “drag out” the peace process for a time, the talks were already “finished.”
Kerry reacted strongly to McCain’s words.
“It is interesting that you declare it dead but the Israelis and the Palestinians do not declare it dead. They want to continue to negotiate,” Kerry said.
“We’ll see, won’t we,” responded McCain.
“Yeah, we will see,” said Kerry.
The negotiations have stopped, insisted McCain. “Recognize reality,” he said to Kerry.
“We’ll see where the reality is as we go down the road,” responded Kerry.
He continued with a passionate defense of the talks.
“We are trying to get something done. I think it’s important to to do this. Sure we may fail. You want to dump it on me, I may fail, I do not care. It is worth doing. It is worth the effort The US has a responsibility to lead,” Kerry said.
Kerry fielded questions about the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to recognize that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, stating that this was something Palestinians should acknowledge.
But “it’s not going to happen” at this stage of the negotiations, he said.
“The government of the United States and the president support the notion of Israel being defined as a Jewish state,” Kerry told his former colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We believe that that should happen. But when it happens, and how it happens, has to be part of the negotiations. It’s not going to happen in the beginning.”
Pressed by the Senate panel, Kerry said that the crisis in the talks – perhaps, he said, the result of an “inadvertent” spiral of consequential events – had been caused in part by a series of decisions by the Israeli government while it vacillated over releasing the final tranche of prisoners as promised in the original deal.
He acknowledged that the release was a “painful, difficult [and] enormously hard” decision for Netanyahu to make.
The secretary also observed that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision last week to initiate applications to 15 international treaties and conventions was “clearly unhelpful.”
In his opening remarks to the committee, where he was to discuss the priorities of the State Department for the year as reflected in its annual budget, Kerry said that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was an issue “first and foremost among leaders all over the world.”
“Everywhere, it has an impact,” he said, including “on life in the United States.”
On Tuesday night, Bennett placed the blame for the talks’ failure on Abbas for submitting the 15 applications and failing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
“Abbas proved that he is not a partner and does not ever plan to be a partner,” he said.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On, however, faulted the government, saying it had no interest in reaching a peace treaty.
“Instead of making brave decisions,” she said, “this government continues to give the middle finger to the Americans and authorize construction beyond the Green Line.”
She declared that “no one in this government represents the public interest. Bennett is busy funneling millions of shekels to settlers under the table through the Housing Ministry. [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid and Livni are nothing more than this government’s fig leaf, who willingly ignore the will of their voters and the promises they made not that long ago.”
Earlier in the day, Liberman told Army Radio that he, too, blamed the Palestinians.
“I’m in favor of negotiations, but I don’t believe in being a sucker,” he said.
He charged that the Palestinian submission of the applications crossed a “redline” and that matters could not now continue as normal.
The applications must be rescinded before any further discussion of prisoner releases, he said.
On Sunday, Netanyahu warned the Palestinians that Israel would take its own unilateral actions against them if they pushed forward with the applications.
It is assumed that he was referring to monetary measures.
PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Abbas would appeal at an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday for political and economic support in the event of Israeli punitive measures.
Palestinian UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour said on Tuesday that the Palestinians were prepared to join more international groups if Israel retaliated. As a UN non-member state, Palestinians can join 63 international agencies and accords.
“If they want to escalate further and try to illegally punish us for doing something legal, we are ready and willing to send the second barrage, the third barrage and more of what legally we could do,” Mansour told the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
Reuters and Michael Wilner contributed to this report.