Moderate leaders in Arab states across the Middle East have expressed a willingness to promote peace with Israel and to stand up against extremist factions in the region, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday, adding that Arab countries were eager to cooperate with Israel on a wide array of economic and agricultural issues.
Kerry also said progress had been made in peace talks last year between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but lamented that conditions were not yet ripe for new peace negotiations, particularly due to heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians that have led to an unprecedented amount of frustration.
Kerry said Arab leaders had told him they were ready to make peace with Israel and to join together to fight terror.
“We’re seeing potential emergence of a new regional alignment uniting countries with little in common but shared aversion to extremism,” he told the Brookings Institution’s 11th annual Saban Forum in Washington.
Speaking before Kerry in a prerecorded message, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that cooperation between Israel and moderate Arab states in the fight against Islamic extremism could “open the door to peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. He said, however, that the Palestinian leadership must end incitement against Israel if that is to occur.
“The collapse of the old order has made clear to pragmatic Arab governments that Israel is not the enemy,” Netenyahu said.
Kerry noted that common cause against extremists was already “making steady measurable progress” against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Netanyahu also slammed Palestinian incitement and said Ramallah had ended peace talks, but Kerry said that the achievement of a two-state solution for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essential in order to advance stability in the region, and would ultimately ensure that Israel remain both Jewish and democratic.
“The US flat out rejects the notion that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a pipe dream,” said Kerry. “We know Israel has to be strong to make peace, we also know that peace will make Israel stronger.”
The secretary of state pledged that the United States would not interfere in the coming Israeli elections, but said that brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace remained a priority.
“The two-state solution is the only chance to keep Israel secure, Jewish and democratic; there is no one-state alternative,” he continued, adding that the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians was “not sustainable.”
The secretary of state further said that while the US commitment to Israel’s security remains “ironclad,” and the bilateral security cooperation between the two countries has “never been stronger,” nevertheless the US believes Israel should take steps to curb settlement activity in the West Bank.
“The settlements are undermining prospects for peace and isolating Israel in the international community,” he continued.
Kerry said that Israeli and Palestinian leaders must engage in peace talks once again, and added that negotiations — rather than unilateral moves — were key to solving the conflict. He also urged Palestinian leaders to work towards eliminating all instances of incitement in the local media.
‘Not an inch of daylight’ on Iran
Kerry went on to defend the extension of talks between the P5+1 world powers and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
“Many voices had claimed we had made a tragic mistake,” Kerry said, describing events a year ago after the terms of the negotiations were outlined. Now, he said, by reducing Iran’s enrichment output, Israel and the world are safer.
“Iran has lived up to every commitment” of the interim deal, Kerry continued, but added that “we have no intention of negotiating forever.” He stressed that the Obama administration would never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
“President Barack Obama has never wavered — Iran will not get nuclear weapons,” he said.
Kerry stressed that the US, as Israel, believed that “no deal is preferable to a bad deal,” but added that negotiations were most effective in preventing Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capabilities.
In his address, Netanyahu said Israel had played a critical role in stopping a deal with Iran on reining in its nuclear program from going ahead last month.
The deal would have “effectively left Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” he told the Washington think-tank in his recorded speech. “Even though Israel isn’t part of the P5+1, our voice and our concerns played a critical role in preventing a bad deal.”
Kerry acknowledged differences between Israel and the United States on how to approach Iran, but stressed that the two countries’ goals are the same.
“While we may disagree on tactics from time to time, when it comes to the core strategic goal — no nuclear weapons — there is not an inch of daylight between the United States and the State of Israel,” he claimed.
Kerry maintained that the interim nuclear accord with Iran is holding and that fears that the Iranians would cheat have proven to be unfounded thus far. He said new ideas on how to achieve a more durable agreement have been presented and that it was his hope that the late-March target for a framework would be met, with little need for further talks.
“We have no intention of negotiating forever,” Kerry said. “Absent measurable progress, who knows how much longer this could go on.”
But, he also stressed the importance of sealing a deal that keeps Iran from having nuclear weapons.
“If we succeed in reaching an agreement, the entire world, including Israel, will be safer for it,” he said.
Raphael Ahren, Adiv Sterman and JTA contributed to this report.