US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday hit back at criticism that the US is retreating from the Middle East and the rest of the world.
“Far from disengaging, America is proud to be more engaged than ever and, I believe, is playing as critical a role as ever in the pursuit of global peace, prosperity and stability,” he told the World Economic Forum meeting in the mountain town of Davos, Switzerland.
Kerry highlighted US efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a push to rid Syria of its chemical weapons and a deal with Iran to rein in its nuclear program.
“Intensive, creative and strong diplomacy requires cooperation — and that is exactly why the United States is so engaged in the Middle East and around the world, and why we will stay so,” the top US diplomat said.
“As our friends and partners take courageous steps forward, they can be assured that [US] President [Barack] Obama and his administration will remain engaged for the long haul, but we will also confront these challenges with the urgency that they deserve. We dare not — and I can assure you we will not — miss this moment,” he added.
Amid turbulence and upheaval across many Arab countries, the US administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been heavily criticized at home and by key Gulf allies for lacking focus.
Fresh from trying to push the Syrian opposition and the regime to start direct peace talks during a conference earlier this week, Kerry launched back into the faltering Middle East peace process.
On Friday, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Davos for almost two hours, during which they discussed ways to draw up a framework for the talks.
The US-brokered peace talks that began in July last year after a three-year hiatus in direct negotiations have faltered over seemingly irreconcilable demands from both sides and are failing to bring any glimpse of a final agreement.
Kerry, who made 11 trips to Israel and the West Bank in his first year in office, is trying to devise a framework deal to chart the talks going forward, which would set guidelines on tough issues, such as the contours of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Jerusalem.
The two sides have agreed to stay at the negotiating table for nine months, until late April.
Yet with the deadline looming, there has been mounting criticism by both Israelis and Palestinians as Kerry pushes them to accept tough compromises.
Netanyahu said the meeting with Kerry had been very good, but told Israeli reporters that neither a final accord nor a framework agreement was currently being discussed.
“The Americans are talking about their proposal for a framework to conduct negotiations. This is not an agreement we’re talking about, rather a route to enable progress,” Israeli media reported him as saying.
The Israeli leader also reiterated that he would not evacuate any settlements in the Jordan Valley.
Netanyahu has amplified calls for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a demand Palestinian leaders reject, fearing this could preclude the right of return for Palestinian refugees who left or were driven into exile when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday reiterated comments by Netanyahu in a speech on Thursday, saying Israel was committed to Kerry’s peace drive.