Speaking In Brasilia, the second stop of a South America trip, Secretary Kerry said it would be better that Israel not make settlement announcements while peace talks are ongoing.
Kerry reiterated the U.S. position describing new settlements as illegitimate, but said he does not believe the latest Israeli housing announcements threaten the second round of talks due to begin in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Israel approved construction of 942 new settlement homes, after a previous announcement that 1,200 new homes were being approved in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.
Kerry said he talked by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he said had earlier stated his intention of announcing additional building in areas it is presumed would be in Israel as part of any future peace deal.
Kerry said he would talk with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who he described as committed to talks “because he believes that negotiation is what will resolve this issue.”
“So we will continue to work this very, very closely with Israelis. We will continue to work it very closely with Palestinians. And our hope is that we get to the real issues on which we ought to be focusing which are the final status settlement, the final status issues, and I am very hopeful we will get there very, very soon,” said Kerry.
On the eve of the talks, Palestinian officials continued to voice anger.
PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo was quoted [by AFP] as calling the housing announcements an “unprecedented expansion” of Israeli settlement policy, that threatened to “make talks fail even before they have started.”
State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to go into further detail about what the U.S. has said to Israel in expressing “serious concern” about new housing.
“There are going to be parts of this process that are bumps in the road, ups and downs, that we have seen how this has played out in the past, and what we are focused on is moving forward with the future, and the process, and how we will deal with these bumps in the road,” said Harf.
At the same time, Israel moved ahead with the first stage of its agreement to free 104 Palestinian prisoners under an agreement to get negotiations going.
Anthony Cordesman, a foreign policy analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that despite a track record that is “not hopeful,” the fact that both sides are willing to talk offers some chance of success.
“Israel has to look around it and see an uncertain Arab world where it can be sure of Egypt or the level of extremism anywhere on its borders. The Palestinians have to look around and realize that a lot of those pressures, like the settlements you mentioned, are making it harder and harder for them to ever have a state if they don’t compromise and move forward,” said Cordesman.
The State Department’s Harf cautioned against comparisons between current efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and the one President Barack Obama tried to start in 2010. They collapsed over the Israeli settlement issue.
“Both sides are at the table, operating in good faith. There is a lot of history about why this hasn’t worked in the past, but we are focused on the fact that both sides sit down at the table and say this is important, it is imperative, it is the right time, our leaders are committed to it, and so we are going to continue working with you on this to get to a better place,” she said.
Harf said the United States is “in no way” throwing up its hands when it comes to Israeli settlement policy, or dismissing the issue.