Secretary Kerry to skip Israel in first trip

John Kerry will skip Israel as part of his first trip abroad as secretary of State, the Obama administration announced Tuesday.

Kerry had been widely expected to visit Israel and the West Bank and push for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians ahead of President Obama’s own expectations-laden trip to the country next month. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had a frosty relationship characterized by tensions over Israeli settlement construction and Iran’s alleged nuclear program, with some Democrats accusing Netanyahu of rooting for Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election.

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Instead, Kerry will be visiting nine European and Middle Eastern capitals over 10 days starting Sunday, focusing in large part on the civil war in Syria. When it comes to the crucial Israeli relationship, he’ll be playing a supporting role to Obama, who will make his first trip to the Jewish state and the West Bank as president next month.

“Given the fact that the government’s coalition negotiations in Israel are still under way,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday, “the secretary will be traveling there with the president when he visits later in the spring, in lieu of making his own separate trip in February to Jerusalem and Ramallah.”

Kerry will first go on a tour of Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar from Feb. 24 until March 6. The 23-month-old insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad, in which 60,000 people have died, will be front and center when he meets with world leaders, notably in Italy, Turkey and Qatar, one of the main supporters of the insurgency.

In Rome, Kerry will participate in a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the civil war in Syria. The Obama administration has been under increasing pressure to arm the rebels following revelations that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urged such a policy last summer. Kerry has said he’s considering a range of options as the new head of the State Department and would talk to Syria’s neighbors before advocating next steps.

“We’re expecting eight to 10 of the countries who have been the biggest supporters of the opposition to be there and also for the opposition to be in that meeting to present its views on how it’s going and how the international community can continue to support [the opposition],” Nuland said. “And then there’ll be a separate meeting that the secretary will have with the [Syrian Opposition Council] leadership.”

Kerry’s visit to Paris will mostly focus on the crisis in the West African nation of Mali, where the United States is backing the French intervention to rout Islamist militants from the northern part of the country. Middle East peace is expected to be a main topic of discussion in Qatar, according to the State Department.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu said Tuesday that former foreign minister and leftist opposition leader Tzipi Livni was joining his government and taking over peace talks with the Palestinians. The decision has raised hopes for progress toward a two-state solution during Obama’s second term.

The president himself is expected to play a key role in any future deal, even as the White House has sought to temper expectations. During his visit, he will be awarded the Israeli Presidential Medal of Distinction — the first sitting U.S. president to receive the honor — for being a “true friend” of Israel and helping fund the country’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has been playing down any tensions between Obama and Netanyahu ahead of the president’s trip.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama got 11 meetings” in the president’s first term, Oren said Tuesday on MSNBC. “President Obama says he has spoken to Prime Minister Netanyahu more frequently than any other foreign leader.”

“If you look at where we are today [on Middle East peace], we’re much closer. We both call for the immediate resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, without preconditions, to come to a two-state solution. I think it’s going to be a great visit. I’m very excited about it.”


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This article was updated at 8 p.m.