Amid rising tensions, Kerry postpones visit to Israel

US secretary of state will visit in coming weeks, says he respects Netanyahu’s concerns over Iran deal

US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Israel on November 6, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Israel on November 6, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State John Kerry has postponed a visit to Israel reportedly scheduled for this week, saying it would take place “after Thanksgiving,” the State Department confirmed Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN Sunday that Kerry would arrive in Israel on Friday, but the State Department would not confirm the date, announcing on Monday that Kerry “hopes to go in the coming weeks.”

Netanyahu and Kerry traded barbs last week over Israel’s rejection of a possible deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Kerry hinted that the Israeli prime minister was unaware of the details of the deal when criticizing it, while Netanyahu retorted that he is “continuously updated in detail.”

Kerry last visited Israel on November 6, as part of a Middle Eastern tour.

During a news conference early Monday afternoon with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, Kerry talked around the policy differences between the US and Israel concerning conditions for relaxing sanctions on Iran. “I have great respect for his concerns about his country,” Kerry said. “The prime minister should express his concerns and he has every right in the world to publicly state his position and defend what he believes is his interest.”

Netanyahu has been increasingly vocal in his displeasure with the conditions for an interim deal almost approved by the P5+1 in the last round of nuclear talks with Iran earlier this month. Netanyahu’s concerns have been reasserted in Washington by numerous members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, who are continuing their push for legislating increased sanctions against Iran.

“Nothing that we are doing here, in my judgment, will put Israel at any additional risk,” Kerry said Monday, countering Netanyahu’s argument. “In fact, let me make this clear, we believe it reduces risk.” Israel has complained that the lines of the deal, which did not require a freeze on work on the Arak heavy water plutonium facility or a full freeze on uranium enrichment, allow Iran to continue key components of nuclear development.

Shortly after Kerry’s comments, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki also downplayed the tension between the two. Kerry and Netanyahu have known each other for decades, she said, even if “they have differences” between them. Psaki refused to characterize the relationship between Israel and the United States as “strained,” insisting that it was instead “a disagreement in tactics.”

She expressly denied that a compliment paid by Netanyahu to visiting French President Francois Hollande, that “your support, your friendship is real. It’s sincere. You’re one out of six” was intended as an affront to the United States.

At the same time, however, she confirmed that Kerry would not visit Israel at the end of the week. “They’ve discussed the best timing to visit and so he hopes to go in the coming weeks,” Psaki told reporters.

Kerry’s schedule for the coming week had not included documentation of any international travel, but he had no major meetings scheduled for Friday – leaving the possibility open for a swift trip to Jerusalem.

Psaki also avoided answering questions as to how extensively Israel has been briefed on the emerging deal in the P5+1. Although the State Department said it was updating Israel regularly, Psaki would not confirm whether or not Netanyahu was briefed on the terms of the potential agreement.

In addition to the discord over Iran, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians — brokered by Kerry — suffered a new blow last week when the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, asserted his resignation over what he dubbed Israel’s “lack of integrity.” PA President Mahmoud Abbas would not accept Erekat’s resignation, saying on Sunday that negotiations will run their full nine-month course “regardless of what happens on the ground.”

Meanwhile, Middle East scholar David Makovsky was appointed to the American negotiating team headed by Martin Indyk, news website Al-Monitor reported Monday. A former Jerusalem-based journalist, Makovsky most recently headed the Washington Institute’s project on the Middle East peace process.

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