The new US Secretary of State John Kerry said after being sworn in Friday that he plans to visit Israel and Egypt as part of a Middle East tour, possibly within two weeks, by mid-February, on his first trip in his new job.
His visit to Israel would focus on restarting the peace process, and his tour of Cairo would center on the political upheaval and violent protests around the country.
Last week, speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, Kerry said that time for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians was running out — but that he believed there was a “way forward” on peace talks.
“The window or door on a two-state solution could shut – and that would be disastrous for all concerned,” he said. “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 have been on over the last couple of years.”
Outgoing secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier this week that Kerry would “aggressively” pursue a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he’s the top US diplomat.
Analysts have predicted that the Middle East, and specifically the peace process, will rank high on Kerry’s agenda. The veteran statesman has a reputation for being able to smooth things over with foreign leaders. During his role as as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry often traveled on behalf of the White House to ease tensions with countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
During his hearing, Kerry also touched upon the effect that the outcome of the January 22 elections in Israel could have on restarting the peace process.
“We still don’t know which government its going to be,” Kerry said, adding, “I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table and go down a different path than the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.”
Kerry was adamant that a reengagement by the US in the peace process was vital. He said that unilateral moves by both Israelis and Palestinians were counterproductive, “and we oppose them,” and that what was needed was “real negotiations, real results; we need progress.”
Israelis and Palestinians have not held direct talks since the fall of 2010, when the talks broke down after Israel refused to agree to the Palestinian Authority’s demands that it extend a settlement construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a pre-condition for talks.
Last November, the PA gained nonmember observer state status at the UN, despite objections by the US and Israel. Since the UN vote, Israel announced a series of construction plans for areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including in the controversial E1 corridor, located between Maaleh Adumin in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt settlement construction as a pre-condition for returning to the negotiating table. Israel, for its part, maintains that there shouldn’t be pre-conditions for peace talks since all final status issues — security, Jerusalem, refugees, and borders — will be agreed upon during the course of negotiations.
Yoel Goldman contributed to this report.