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Kerry says mistrust is high in talks, cites ‘Jewish state’ issue

WASHINGTON (JTA) — John Kerry said Israeli and Palestinian mutual mistrust remains high, and the U.S. secretary of state expressed frustration with the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Kerry fielded questions about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on Wednesday and Thursday from congressional committees probing his department’s budget requests.

“I do believe both parties are serious,” Kerry told the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. “Both parties want to find a way forward. But, each of them — you know, the level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I’ve ever seen. On both sides. Neither believes the other is really serious. Neither believes that both — that the other is prepared to make some of the big choices that have to be made here.”

Kerry’s pessimism, weeks before he is to unveil a framework for advancing the process, is in marked contrast to the optimistic tone of his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk, who just two months ago described substantial advances in a conversation with Jewish leaders.

Since then, Israeli officials have expressed reservations about proposals to replace Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley with technological substitutes, and Palestinians have stood fast on not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

That issue, particularly, appeared to frustrate Kerry.

He noted that the United Nations recognized Israel as such in 1947 and said that the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, had done so twice.

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve made that clear,” he said Thursday, addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

It was not clear if Kerry believed the “mistake” in this case was Israel’s, or the Palestinians’, or whether both were to blame.

However, he appeared to be endorsing the premise of a question posed to him by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who  blamed Palestinians for the impasse.

“You’re absolutely correct,” Kerry said, in starting his answer.

A JTA request for clarification from Kerry’s aides was not answered.

In an earlier exchange, Kerry had told Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, that one way past the “Jewish state” impasse was to make clear in any agreement that the rights of non-Jews would be preserved.

As long as recognition includes a nod to “equal rights and non-discrimination against any citizen,” Kerry said, the likelihood increased of Arab and Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.

Kerry, in his remarks to both committees, stressed his commitment to Israel’s security.

He pushed back against a warning from the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) that Congress would cut funding to the Palestinian Authority unless Kerry was able to certify that the Palestinians had ended incitement against Jews and Israel.

“Let me say to you, it’s something that is a concern within leadership,” Kerry said, referring to the Palestinians. “It’s not always something that’s controlled all the way down the chain; it’s not always, you know, it’s not always easily accessible. Even though one person may issue an instruction, some things don’t happen. So, it’s a little more complicated, but we’re working on it.”

Kerry also pressed his request for a waiver to work with UNESCO, the science and cultural adjunct of the United Nations.

The Obama administration, heeding the law banning affiliation with international organizations that recognize a Palestinian state absent a peace agreement, last year withdrew from UNESCO.

Kerry said the U.S. absence harmed Israel. “What happens is, we actually lose our voice and our capacity to fight for Israel and to fight for other interest that we have,” Kerry told the foreign operations subcommittee. “We are stripped of that.”

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