US pulls back from linking settlements to violence
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US pulls back from linking settlements to violence

State says Kerry didn't intend to suggest construction, stabbings connected; acknowledges 'reports' on excessive use of force by Israel

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on October 6, 2015 (Hector Retamal/AFP)
US Secretary of State John Kerry on October 6, 2015 (Hector Retamal/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The US State Department distanced itself on Wednesday from claims that Secretary of State John Kerry had linked what he described as a “massive increase in settlements” to the current outbreak of violence plaguing Israel. But it reiterated Kerry’s message delivered a day earlier that Israel’s settlement policy was distancing the possibility of achieving a two-state solution.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Kerry had not been “trying to affix… blame for the recent violence” during a Tuesday evening address at Harvard University, when the secretary told his audience that “there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing.” The two ideas, Kirby suggested, were not meant to be interpreted causally.

Rather, Kirby said, Kerry was merely listing “the challenges that are posed on both sides by this absence of progress towards a two-state solution.” Kerry’s statement, Kirby explained, “highlighted our concern that current trends on the ground, including this violence, as well as ongoing settlement activity, are imperiling the viability of eventually getting to a two-state solution.”

Responding to Palestinian complaints about Israeli actions in recent days, Kirby said that the US had “seen some reports of security activity that could indicate the potential excessive use of force.” He did not elaborate on the incidents in question, and it was unclear if he was referring to Israel’s handling of Palestinian rioting or the shooting of knife-wielding Palestinian assailants — which many Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have claimed is excessive.

The State Department, Kirby said, is “always concerned about credible reports of excessive use of force against civilians, and we routinely raise our concerns about that” — a statement that gives US diplomats significant wiggle room in responding to such charges.

During his speech, Kerry had emphasized his determination to work over the 16 months that remain of the Obama administration in order to reestablish talks toward a comprehensive peace agreement.

“The secretary has made clear his concerns over what’s going on there and his desire to travel to the region to engage and discuss and to try to find ways to reduce the tensions, restore the calm and then start to work, collaboratively hopefully, towards a two-state solution,” Kirby said.

US State Department Spokesman John Kirby. (AP/Susan Walsh)
US State Department Spokesman John Kirby. (AP/Susan Walsh)

At the same time, Kirby did not detail if Kerry had any upcoming travel plans — and if so, where to. “He has every intention of traveling to the region soon and I don’t have anything to announce today with respect to travels.”

“[Kerry] does remain deeply concerned by continued escalating violence,” Kirby added. “It’s something he has been focused on for a while now and he intends to travel to the region to continue those kind of discussions.”

According to Kirby, the secretary “wants both sides to take the affirmative actions, both in rhetoric and in action, to de-escalate the tensions, to restore calm, and to try to move forward toward a two-state solution.”

At the same time, Kirby said that he had “nothing to report” regarding media reports that Kerry plans to jumpstart top-level talks in Jordan between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry has been following the recent upswing in violence closely, and made phone calls to both Abbas and Netanyahu over the weekend to express concern over the situation. Kirby emphasized that the secretary had “unequivocally” condemned recent attacks by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians against Israeli Jews, but also noted that the State Department considered the stabbing of four Arab men last week in Dimona by a Jewish Israeli to be an act of terrorism.

“Individuals on both sides of this divide have proven capable of, and in our view, are guilty of acts of terrorism,” Kirby stressed.

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