U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Turkey to mend ties with Israel and help with a fresh push to negotiate peace in the Middle East.
Kerry is on the first leg of a nine-day tour starting in the Middle East. The top U.S. diplomat discussed the Syrian crisis, Israeli-Turkish relations and tested the waters with the American ally for a possible revival of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“No peace process is easy,” Kerry said at a joint news conference today with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It takes “courage and determination” and Turkey has a “very central role” to play in the region, Kerry said, giving no details on any new initiative being discussed.
Kerry saw Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before flying to Israel to press for progress in the stalled Mideast peace process. He arrived in Ramallah in the West Bank to visit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and will hold discussions in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 9.
President Barack Obama has charged Kerry with the task of resurrecting a dialogue between the Palestinians and Israel. Peace talks fell apart in September 2010 after Netanyahu didn’t extend a 10-month building freeze in the West Bank, and Abbas said he won’t restart negotiations until construction is halted.
Asked about Turkey’s role in peace talks, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni said on public radio “the idea is interesting, but it could take time,” Agence-France Presse reported.
The arrival of leaders from Jordan, Turkey and Qatar to Washington in coming weeks, coupled with Kerry’s three visits to the region in less than a month, have raised expectations that the U.S. may return to shuttle diplomacy and try to revive the peace process.
Kerry’s hastily arranged trip to Turkey comes after Obama brokered a thaw with Israel during a visit to the region last month, in an effort speed up a reconciliation between the two U.S. allies following a three-year spat. Netanyahu phoned Erdogan March 22 and apologized for the 2010 raid on a ship carrying aid to the Gaza strip that killed nine Turks.
While both countries need to take steps to normalize relations, including the exchange of ambassadors and agreeing on how much Israel will compensate Turkey, Kerry stressed he isn’t setting deadlines.
“It is not for the U.S. to be setting conditions or terms” on what the schedule should be, Kerry said. “We would like to see this relationship get back on track in its full measure.”
Davutoglu said conditions for normalized relations include financial reparation and the lifting of an Israeli embargo on supplies to Gaza.
“All of the embargoes should be eliminated once and for all,” he said via an interpreter.
Also on the agenda was the two-year war in Syria that has killed more than 70,000 people and threatens to engulf the region. Turkey, which shares a border with the country, has been flooded by more than 180,000 refugees fleeing a conflict that has pitted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against opposition forces, including a growing number of jihadists, who are trying to oust him.
The U.S. has urged Turkey as well as Syria’s other neighbors, Jordan and Lebanon, not to close their borders. Kerry will repeat those calls to Erdogan amid frustration among the U.S.’s Arab allies about the lack of new initiatives and resources to prevent the chaos in Syria from spilling over.
The White House has made clear it doesn’t want an expanded role in Syria, while some of its European allies have taken a more active approach in helping the Syrian rebels. The U.K. and France are pushing their European Union partners to lift an arms embargo on Syria in order to supply anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels.
Kerry is now in the position of defending a stance he didn’t share while he was head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. Before becoming secretary of state, Kerry made the case for establishing humanitarian corridors in Syria, which would require military enforcement.
Asked about the creation of buffer zones, Kerry said he wasn’t going to speculate on military strategy.
He said he had a “very precise” discussion with his Turkish counterpart over how to bring about about a political transition. Both diplomats agreed Assad “must go.”
Over the next weeks, “there will be greater clarity,” Kerry said.