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[David Ignatius] A secretary on a mission

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Published : 2014-02-09 19:24
Updated : 2014-02-09 19:24

WASHINGTON ― Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to choose his words carefully in talking about his negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran and a “framework agreement” between Israelis and Palestinians. As recent experience has shown, one loose statement from Kerry ― say, about the risk of a boycott of Israel if the peace talks fail ― can mean days of damage control. 

But Kerry isn’t very good at dissembling, and he answered some questions even after saying he shouldn’t. It was an example of an impetuosity that has propelled him across diplomatic minefields many thought were impassable. Kerry may yet stumble, but he’s clearly enjoying his hour as “the man in the arena,” in Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase.

Kerry began our interview by explaining that as part of his Israeli-Palestinian framework, he wants to allow each side to express its reservations about the U.S.-drafted parameters. This opportunity for dissent has been a controversial subject in the private talks, with some negotiators on both sides arguing that it’s a mistake to allow any such wiggle room.

But Kerry disagrees. He argues that for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, such caveats are “the only way for them to politically be able to keep the negotiations moving. ... For them as leaders to be able to embrace an endgame, they need to have the right to be able to have some objection.”

Kerry is peeved about the political furor provoked by his statement last weekend in Munich about the possibility of future boycotts of Israel if the talks collapse. He says the statement was “taken out of context” by critics who overlooked his career-long record of support for the Jewish state. He added pointedly: “There are those who do not want a two-state solution, who don’t believe in it. There are those who don’t want to stop settling certain parts of the region.”

Kerry fences when asked about Abbas’ recent statements that he would allow a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops over five years and accept NATO troops as a buffer after the Israelis leave. “Netanyahu has made it clear he doesn’t want NATO,” Kerry says, but a possible third-party force “is something for the parties to work out.”

Is ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really possible, with so much bitterness and mistrust on both sides? Kerry answers with a diplomat’s long view: “Everybody understands that it’s going to take some period of time for a transition. That’s why it is phased. ... What is critical, I think, is to give people a sense that there can be an end of the conflict and an end of claims, that there is a framework within which it is all contained.”

On the Iran negotiations, Kerry was guarded. He seems to share President Obama’s view that the odds are against getting a comprehensive deal. But he argued that the U.S. should stay focused for now on the nuclear deal, and avoid bargaining over regional issues such as Syria.

A regional security framework with Iran could come later, Kerry says, if the nuclear talks succeed. “President Obama and I both share the belief that thinking about and exploring a regional security component to this overall approach to peace is very important, but ― and I underscore a great, huge ‘but’ ― we are not engaged in that discussion with Iran at this point in time, nor will we be until we resolve the nuclear file.”

Perhaps hoping to defuse Saudi Arabia’s anxiety about such outreach to Iran, Kerry noted that Saudi King Abdullah mentioned “a potential new security arrangement for the region” in his 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. That document does mention “comprehensive peace” and “security for all the states of the region.”

Kerry made his comments sitting by the fireplace in his big office on the seventh floor of the State Department. He was in his shirtsleeves, occasionally throwing logs on the fire. From this office, Henry Kissinger and James Baker tried unsuccessfully to crack the Israeli-Palestinian nut, and Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice attempted without success to engage Iran.

Kerry insists he’s not trying to emulate any of his predecessors. “I’m not doing this in some model,” he said. “I mean, it can require a push, it can require stepping back. It can require drama and it can require silence.” At another point, he said with relish that critics who argue he’s been too involved in his Middle East mission should realize: “It’s my job. I’m secretary of state.”

By David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. ― Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)

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