Sec. of State John Kerry 'determined' to get Middle East peace deal

By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 2:25 p.m. MST

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, looks on as Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh makes a statement about the ongoing humanitarian crisis and violence in Syria on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Paris.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remained "committed" and "determined" to reaching a Middle East peace deal, but said in an interview aired Thursday that he understood Israeli fears and skepticism of its outcome.

Kerry told Israeli Channel 2 TV's flagship investigative program "Uvda" that he was not distracted by naysayers on both sides and has not given up hope that a deal is attainable.

"That's not the way I operate. I'm an optimist and I am a believer in possibilities," he said. "People who know me know that when I sink my teeth into something, if I get the bit between my teeth, I try to get it done."

Kerry has visited the region more than a dozen times since the most recent round of talks were launched in July. With an April target date for an agreement approaching, Kerry has said he will soon return with bridging proposals for a framework deal. Recently, both sides appear to have hardened their positions while questioning the effectiveness of Kerry's efforts.

In Israel, Kerry has come under fire from West Bank Jewish settlers who fear he is pushing Israel to make dangerous territorial concessions. Some Israeli ministers also have criticized what they consider to be his overzealous drive for an accord, despite a Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and past terrorist attacks.

The Palestinians fear recognizing Israel as a Jewish homeland would strengthen Israel in its refusal to allow the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, for one, has been quoted as calling Kerry's efforts naive and foolhardy, his security plan worthless and his entire approach "obsessive" and "messianic."

In the interview, Kerry brushed the comments aside.

"Those are judgments that other people may or may sort of have fun making in this process. I am doing my job," he said. "I am committed and I am determined."

Kerry complimented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the "brave" steps he has taken but refused to speculate whether the lifelong hawk would ultimately agree to a deal that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In a sign of the kind of domestic pressure Netanyahu is up against, a nationalist parliamentary lobby that includes his own coalition whip and seven deputy ministers in his government sent him a letter in which they warned him against halting any settlement construction. The group adamantly objected to any building freeze and said that would amount to a "deal breaker" on their part.

More than 500,000 Israelis live in areas of the West Bank and east Jerusalem that the Palestinians hope will be part of their future state — areas Israel captured in the 1967 war. The West considers the settlements they live in to be an obstacle to peace and their continued expansion a sign of bad faith from Israel.

Kerry, for his part, sought to soothe jittery Israelis throughout the interview, discussing his own Jewish roots and his long-standing support for Israel.

He predicted that despite the skepticism Israel would ultimately be much more secure and prosperous after a peace accord.

"I have no argument with anyone in Israel who says that no deal is better than a bad deal. I say that myself," he said. "I'm not in the business of trying to put together a bad deal."

Follow Aron Heller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap.

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