JERUSALEM: Secretary of State John Kerry made his first trip to Israel in more than a year, arriving on Tuesday in the midst of a new rash of deadly attacks that have dampened hopes for peace mediation between the Jewish state and Palestinians during the Obama administration’s final year. The visit includes no such ambitious agenda, the chief U.S. diplomat conceded, and is primarily focused on ending the terror.
Kerry will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, before traveling to the West Bank for discussions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The script is well-trodden, with Kerry likely to ask both sides to avoid provocative actions. For the Israelis, that means holding off on construction of new settlements in lands the Palestinians seek for their future state. For the Palestinians, it means ending incitement of violence.
Ahead of Kerry’s trip, a Palestinian on Monday fatally stabbed an Israeli soldier at a West Bank gas station before security forces killed him. Two teenage Palestinian girls attacked a 70-year-old Palestinian in Jerusalem, apparently mistaking him for an Israeli. The Israeli military said a knife-wielding Palestinian was shot dead before he could harm anyone. And a Palestinian rammed his vehicle into a pedestrian near a West Bank settlement, lightly wounding him.
Amid so much violence, Kerry said “there’s no highfalutin, grandiose, hidden agenda here.” He told reporters traveling with him in the Middle East on Monday that he sought steps “that could calm things down a little bit so people aren’t living in absolute, daily terror that they might be stabbed or driven into or shot trying to walk around their city.”
The violence began in mid-September over tensions surrounding a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, before spreading across Israel and into Palestinian territories. Nineteen Israelis have been killed, mostly in stabbings. Israeli fire has killed 89 Palestinians. Israel says 57 of these were attackers, while the rest died in clashes with security forces.
Last week, an American from Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts was among those killed. Kerry lamented 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz’s death as “another young life cut short.”
“It happens almost every day over there and it’s terrible, and too many Israelis have been killed and stabbed, and too many Palestinians,” he said. “And there’s no excuse for any of the violence. There’s just no rationale.”
Kerry has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories only once since the collapse in April 2014 of a nine-month peace process he led. He traveled back three months later during warfare between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.
In recent months, Kerry and other U.S. officials have suggested a renewed peace push might be possible. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took unsuccessful stabs at a two-state solution during their final months in office. But the rising death toll seems, for now, to have created an environment that makes a similar commitment by President Barack Obama unlikely.
Kerry said the U.S. was prepared to re-engage in a serious peace effort, and “we have ideas for how things could proceed.”
“But this street violence doesn’t provide any leader with a framework within which they can look their people in the eye and say, ‘There’s a reason to be sitting down and talking about this or that,’ ” he said. “People aren’t in the mood for concessions. They’re in the mood for being tough.”
On a visit to the West Bank on Monday, Netanyahu didn’t suggest he was adopting a softer approach. Israel, he vowed, would enter “villages, communities and homes” and carry out “widespread arrests.”
Abbas, for his part, has provided no indication that he wants to restart direct peace talks with the Israelis anytime soon.
Israel says the recent violence stems from Palestinian incitement and incendiary videos on social media. The Palestinians say it is rooted in frustration over almost five decades of Israeli occupation and little hope for obtaining independence. Palestinians also accuse Israel of using excessive force, saying some attackers can be stopped without being killed.