Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday he will attend a Middle East peace conference in Paris next month that is an attempt to revive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a news conference at NATO headquarters, Kerry said he had assured French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that he would come to the conference, scheduled for June 3. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the French initiative, because he is concerned it could try to dictate terms of a settlement instead of one forged in direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
But Kerry said he welcomed the French proposal because it could provide a “helpful” pathway back to negotiations.
“It is not inappropriate for countries, all of whom actually care about both parties, and care about peace, to want to try to come together in an effort to find a pathway that would be helpful,” he said. “In the end the parties have to negotiate. You can’t impose it on people. What we are seeking to do is encourage the parties to be able to see a way forward so they understand peace is a possibility.”
Early in his tenure as secretary of state, Kerry spent nine months trying to move negotiations forward, but the talks eventually collapsed in early 2014.
More recently, amid a wave of Palestinian stabbings of Israelis and continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Kerry has tried to encourage more modest confidence-building measures to create an environment for talks to resume. But with the Obama administration’s months in office drawing to a close, U.S. officials have said they are not actively engaged in trying to relaunch peace talks.
Kerry also welcomed an offer by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to mediate differences among Palestinian factions so talks could resume. Sissi promised warmer ties with Israel, with whom relations have been frosty despite a peace agreement signed in 1979, if a settlement could be reached with Palestinians.
Kerry’s remarks came at the annual NATO spring meeting of foreign ministers, who over two days are discussing a series of security threats, from Russia in the east to strife on its southern flank, where wars and failing economies are propelling new waves of migrants across the Mediterranean.
The perils were underscored by speculation that the disappearance of an EgyptAir flight over the Mediterranean early Thursday morning may have been caused by an act of terror. Kerry said the facts have not come in yet and declined to discuss it further. He offered his condolences to the families of the 66 people aboard the Cairo-bound airplane, most of whom were Egyptian and French.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that the meetings are focused on “projecting stability beyond our borders,” referring to the Middle East and North Africa.
“NATO has the troops to make a difference,” he said Thursday. “And we have the potential to do more.”
Many of the 28 nations in NATO already are contributing to a multinational effort to combat Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq. Though the bulk of their effort involves providing trainers, equipment and weapons to local forces, a growing number contribute in some manner to airstrikes in a combat mission led by the United States.
NATO has set up a training program for Iraqi forces, but it’s based in Jordan, a NATO partner. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has asked NATO to move the program to Iraq, a request the United States supports.
The diplomats also are discussing ways to provide training and military aid to Libya, if the new government there formally requests it. At a meeting Monday in Vienna, the United States and two dozen other countries threw their support behind the fledgling national unity government in Tripoli, and said they are ready to supply it with weapons to use against a growing number of militants allied with the Islamic State.
The NATO meeting also follows on the heels of a large gathering of nations trying to jump-start peace talks to end the war in Syria. It was hosted in Vienna by the United States and Russia, who agreed to consider air drops of food and medicine if the Syrian government does not open land routes to a dozen besieged towns and villages.
Despite a show of cooperation on Syria, Moscow is being eyed as a menace in Brussels, with NATO planning its biggest military expansion since the Cold War ended. After a July summit in Warsaw, NATO is expected to put more troops and defense systems into Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression like its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Kerry said sanctions against Russia will remain in place until Moscow meets its commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement, including a cease-fire, elections in the separatist eastern half of the country and the return of Crimea to Ukraine.
“Make no mistake,” Kerry said. “We will not recognize the annexation and occupation of Crimea.”
Russia is alarmed over NATO’s expansion so close to its border. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin called the growing presence of NATO troops in Eastern Europe “a threat to Russia’s national security.” Defying Russia’s objections, NATO on Thursday accepted the Balkan country of Montenegro as an observer, a prelude to formal membership.
U.S. officials say the NATO expansion and beefed-up military presence in Eastern Europe is a response to Russian aggression that began with Crimea and Ukraine.
“From our point of view, this is defensive,” said a senior State Department official, speaking anonymously under rules for briefing reporters. “We have made clear to Russia it is purely defensive, and that it responds directly to the concern Russia might miscalculate allied resolve.”
The diplomats also discussed expanding operations in the Mediterranean to support the European Union’s Operation Sophia, a controversial effort to board and seize ships being used to smuggle migrants across the short expanse of sea between Libya and Italy.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Carol Morello