Kerry: New settlements derailed peace talks

Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday said Israel’s announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem last week derailed the peace talks with the Palestinians. 

Israel first missed the deadline to release the fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners, Kerry told lawmakers at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Israel then announced 700 new settlement units in Jerusalem.

“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said at a hearing focused on the fiscal 2015 budget for national security and foreign policy priorities.

The Republican Jewish Coalition slammed Kerry for laying the blame on Israel and called his remarks “outrageous.” 

“After almost nine months of negotiations, during which Israel took concrete steps to advance the process, including the release of 78 prisoners - many of them terrorists - it is outrageous for Secretary Kerry to blame the Jewish state for the apparent failure of the diplomatic process undertaken at his insistence,” Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement.

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The Palestinians have “consistently undercut” the talks, Brooks added.

After the hearing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tweeted “at no point has [Kerry] engaged in a blame game.”

Kerry noted both sides are responsible for “unhelpful” actions that led to a stalemate in the talks.

He had been reportedly working on a plan that would extend peace negotiations through 2015.

One condition called for Israel to release the prisoners and not announce new settlements in the West Bank, though not in East Jerusalem. Palestinians would be barred from taking unilateral steps at the United Nations, which officials moved forward with last week. 

Kerry was aiming to broker a final status agreement between both sides by April 29. That deadline will likely pass without a deal because of the impasse. 

He told lawmakers Tuesday that if the two sides overcome the dispute over the prisoner release, they could return to the negotiating table.

“It’s up to them,” Kerry said. “They have to come to the conclusion that it’s worth it.”

This came after the State Department said the U.S. helped facilitate a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators Monday evening “to continue the intensive effort to resolve their differences,” Psaki said.

“Gaps remain, but both sides are committed to narrow the gaps.”