WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Israel’s announcement of 700 new apartments for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem precipitated the bitter impasse in peace negotiations last week between Israel and the Palestinians.
While Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, he noted that the publication of tenders for housing units came four days after a deadline passed for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and complicated Israel’s own deliberations over whether to extend the talks.
“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Still, Kerry said that the Israelis and Palestinians were still talking, with the United States acting as a broker, and that if the two sides could get past the dispute over the prisoner release, they could return to substantive negotiations for a peace accord.
“It’s up to them,” Kerry said. “They have to come to the conclusion that it’s worth it.”
Kerry also criticized the Palestinian Authority for applying to join a number of international agencies, a move toward recognition of Palestinian statehood outside the context of peace negotiations. The Palestinians say they took those steps in response to Israel’s actions.
If the tit-for-tat cycle continues, Kerry said, the Obama administration will have less time and patience for the process, given the huge number of other foreign-policy crises in the world.
Much of the hearing was devoted to those other issues, with Kerry coming under particularly sharp questioning over the administration’s Syria policy. Defending the agreement with Russia on eliminating President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, Kerry said that 54 percent of the stockpile had been removed from Syria, with two large shipments scheduled to leave the country in coming days.
Kerry acknowledged, however, that Assad felt more secure in his position now than he had for many months — with his government making gains in the northern part of Syria — and said the time was not ripe for a negotiated solution to the civil war.
“I think there’s a capacity to change Assad’s calculation, and so does the president,” he said. “The key is, how do you get the parties to understand there isn’t a military solution.”
Kerry also faced criticism of the administration’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, saying that the United States had declined to provide even defensive weapons to Ukraine’s army to help protect it from the Russians.
Beyond that, McCain told Kerry, “You’re about to hit the trifecta,” with the lack of a political settlement in Syria, a collapse in peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the eventual failure of the nuclear negotiations between the major powers and Iran.
Bristling, Kerry replied that peace talks during the Vietnam War took years, and that McCain offered no alternative except going to war. “You declare them all dead,” Kerry said to McCain. “I don’t. And we’ll see what the verdict is.”