Jerusalem: US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel for the first time since world powers struck a nuclear deal with Iran that angered the Jewish state, and amid renewed efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The two issues are expected to dominate meetings Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas when Kerry travels to Ramallah.
His visit comes at a time of heated debate in Israel over its alliance with the US. Last month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that the Jewish state should seek partners other than Washington.
A state department official said Kerry would provide Netanyahyu with an update on, and “continue the discussion… on the P5+1 negotiations, the first step that was agreed to, as well as the path forward to a comprehensive agreement” with Iran.
The deal between Iran and world powers, under which Tehran agreed to roll back parts of its nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief, was bitterly opposed by Israel as an “historic mistake”.
Netanyahu’s condemnation has not been toned down by repeated assurances from the US — its closest ally — that Iran would never be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb.
The state department official travelling with Kerry said that while there was a “disagreement over tactics … as we all know, the Israelis had supported an effort to have a comprehensive agreement.”
He said Kerry would discuss with Netanyahu the steps to reaching a final and definitive accord with Iran on its nuclear programme.
Tehran has a long history of belligerent statements toward the Jewish state, and Israel — the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power — has warned that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat.
On the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Kerry “always said he would visit the region when he felt he could personally help move the process forward, so that is the goal of this trip.”
Kerry — on his eighth visit to the region since taking office in February — last visited Israel and the West Bank in early November, when he held a day of marathon talks with Netanyahu on the peace process.
The US-brokered peace talks, which resumed at the end of July after a three-year gap, have already hit a wall over Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank on land the Palestinians want for their future state.
Last month, Kerry warned the settlements issue could break the negotiations at the risk of sparking a third Palestinian uprising.
Abbas warned Monday that Palestinians would take action against Israel through international bodies if peace talks fail.
“The talks are going through great difficulties because of the obstacles created by Israel,” Abbas told visiting Arab journalists at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“The commitment to refrain from action at the UN ends after the nine-month period agreed for talks.”
The talks are currently in their fifth month.
Also during the visit, Kerry and defence department Middle East adviser General John Allen, will provide an update on their evaluation of Israel’s security,” a US official said.
“The secretary is devoting certainly a fair amount of time to this effort” and “working closely with General Allen and his team on that.”
An article in Israeli daily Haaretz on Wednesday had said Kerry would concentrate on security issues, which are of crucial concern to both the United States and Israel.
In particular, Netanyahu wants any future Palestinian state to be demilitarised and to ensure that the Israelis keep a military presence along the border with Jordan.
“The Americans have concluded that Netanyahu will not agree to move forward on other elements (of a peace deal) such as the borders of a future Palestinian state without an arrangement on security,” the newspaper said.
Moreover, Netanyahu’s stance on security has toughened since the interim nuclear deal with Iran.