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Kerry to Netanyahu: Let’s drop the whole settlements thing

The Senate’s top foreign relations Democrat joined the calls of many Republicans Tuesday by coming out in favor of tabling the U.S.-Israeli dispute over Jerusalem housing construction. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was slated to join a host of lawmakers meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s in town ...

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

The Senate’s top foreign relations Democrat joined the calls of many Republicans Tuesday by coming out in favor of tabling the U.S.-Israeli dispute over Jerusalem housing construction.

John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was slated to join a host of lawmakers meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s in town for AIPAC’s annual conference. The Cable caught up to Kerry just before his meeting, and the senior senator from Massachusetts said that he will tell Netanyahu that both the United States and Israel should set the settlements issue aside for now.

"I think what’s important now is not to get stuck on the issue of the settlement freeze," Kerry told The Cable. "I think what’s important is to get to the table and discuss the final-status talks as rapidly as possible."

Kerry noted that calling for a full settlement freeze has been official U.S. policy for years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. But he said that was just not the most important thing on the table at this point.

"I think the focus ought to be on the talks themselves," he said. "The clock is ticking and that ticking clock works against Israel’s security and it works against our interests in the region."

Kerry’s position might look practical considering that Netanyahu continues to reject the reported demands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Israel reverse its decision to build 1,600 new settlements in disputed East Jerusalem, despite their meeting for 75 minutes on Monday afternoon.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-VA, issued a statement after his bipartisan meeting with Netanyahu saying that "building in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem is not an impediment to the peace process."

There are signs that the administration is getting the message. For example, Clinton only mentioned settlements once during her AIPAC speech, and other administration officials have refrained from focusing on the issue in their public statements.

State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said at today’s press conference that the future of Jerusalem is "a final-status issue," and he too emphasized the need to shelve the settlements dispute in favor of getting to the negotiating table.

"The only way to ultimately resolve competing claims, on the future of Jerusalem, is to get to direct negotiations," he said.

That led some in the press corps to ask Crowley if Clinton had "lost" in her showdown with Netanyahu, but Crowley wouldn’t concede that.

Kerry also pushed back against the calls to move Iran sanctions legislation in Congress before the administration is finished pursuing a new U.N. Security Council resolution. That puts him directly in conflict with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, among others.

"I think for Congress to get out ahead at this moment would be complicated. I think we should proceed in concert with the administration," said Kerry. "We can both send a message and we can do it together in a powerful way. The point is to be effective, not first."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin