Kerry wants to hit ground running on peace talks

US secretary of state nominee warns that a failure in negotiations could mean closing the window on the two-state solution.

Sen. John Kerry at the Democratic Convention 370 (R) (photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
Sen. John Kerry at the Democratic Convention 370 (R)
(photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
WASHINGTON – At John Kerry’s confirmation hearings Thursday to be the next US secretary of state, the Massachusetts senator said he hoped the Israeli elections would help restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
“My prayer is that perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion, to have a different track than we’ve been on over the course of the last couple of years,” he told Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he is the current chairman.
Kerry said he believed there was a possibility of Israelis and Palestinians reaching an agreement, which he described as “an incredibly important issue” that he would work hard on.
“So much of what we need to aspire to achieve and what we need globally … all of this is tied to what can and doesn’t happen with respect to Israel/Palestine,” he said, pointing to issues in the Maghreb, South Asia, the Gulf and elsewhere.
He also warned that failure could mean that the window for a two-state solution could shut, and that that would be “disastrous.”
Kerry declined to spell out how he would approach talks between the two parties, suggesting that it could be detrimental to get into details at this point.
“I don’t want to prejudice it with public demands to any party at this point in time,” he explained.
But he stressed, “I will never step back from my commitment to the State of Israel [or] from the plight of Palestinians.”
At another point in the hearing, though, Kerry had stern words for the Palestinians.
Asked about the recent Palestinian bid before the United Nations, Kerry warned against the Palestinians taking advantage of their new non-member status at the world body to take Israel to the International Criminal Court or other unilateral steps.
“They’re getting close to a line that would be very damaging,” he said. “If there were any effort to take Israel, for instance, to the ICC… that’s the kind of unilateral action we would feel very, very strongly against and see it as completely counterproductive.”
Kerry also addressed the challenge of Iran, in which he echoed the White House line on the subject.
“Our policy is not containment, it is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance,” he said in his opening statement.
He added that he and the president “prefer a diplomatic resolution to this challenge, and I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed.”
But he emphasized, “No one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”
His first questioner, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who chaired Thursday’s hearing and is in line to take Kerry’s place, is a strong supporter of Iran sanctions who has sponsored legislation on the subject. He referred obliquely to some hesitance that the Obama administration has had in seeing Congress approve tough sanctions that it, particularly the state department, must then implement.
“Under your leadership, will the department be committed to the full enforcement of the sanctions passed by Congress?” Menendez asked.
Kerry’s answer: “Yes, totally.”
Kerry was treated graciously by his colleague and is expected to be easily confirmed to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department.
He did have a slightly sharper exchange with Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who questioned him on the United States’ decision to give Egypt F-16s after President Mohamed Morsi’s comments referring to Jews and Israelis as descendants of apes and pigs.
Kerry responded by calling those comments “reprehensible,” “degrading,” “unacceptable” and “set back the possibilities of working toward issues of mutual interest. He added that there needed to be an apology, and noted that Morsi had proceeded to make two statements of clarification.
But he said that Egypt was very important for the US and that the relationship was not “black and white,” noting for instance that Cairo had maintained its peace treaty with Israel.
Paul, however, suggested that sending fighter jets to Egypt could endanger Israel, to which Kerry replied that the US was committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
“We do not sell weapons and will not sell weapons that will upset that qualitative balance,” he said.