BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the recent flap over Israeli settlement announcements likely won’t derail Mideast peace talks, which are scheduled to resume this week.
Kerry said at a news conference Monday in Bogota that he has talked about the announcements with the top Israeli negotiator. He is also trying to reach Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is recovering from hernia surgery.
A State Department spokeswoman in Washington, Marie Harf, said that the U.S. had expressed its “serious concerns” about the announcement Sunday that Israel had approved building nearly 1,200 more settlement homes Sunday — the third in a week. It fueled Palestinian fears of a new Israeli construction spurt under the cover of U.S.-sponsored negotiations.
Top U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk has arrived in the region for talks that begin on Wednesday. Palestinian officials already have complained about the settlement announcement, even as Israel released more than 100 Palestinian convicts as part of the deal to resume peace talks.
Kerry said the U.S. government views the settlements as illegitimate. He added that criticism on the Palestinian side shows the need to get negotiations going quickly.
“I think that what this underscores, actually, is the importance of getting to the table and getting to the table quickly and resolving the questions with respect to settlements, which are best resolved by solving the problems of security and borders,” Kerry said. “Once you have security and borders solved, you have resolved the question of settlements.”
Kerry urged both parties not to react adversely or to provoke either side, but to move forward quietly, carefully and deliberately to negotiate the major issues.
“With the negotiation of major issues, these kind of hotpoint issues … are eliminated as the kind of flashpoints that they may be viewed today,” he said.
Kerry, on his first trip to Colombia as secretary of state, met Monday with Colombian officials negotiating with the nation’s largest guerrilla army to find peace in the South American country for the first time since 1964.
Kerry is visiting Colombia and Brazil this week in an attempt to build warmer relations with two U.S. allies in Latin America. But the visits may be hindered by resentment after reports about an American spy program that widely targeted data in emails and telephone calls across the region.
Disclosures by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden could chill talks on several fronts. Those include trade, energy, counternarcotics, and discussions about the Oct. 23 state dinner that President Barack Obama is hosting for Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff.
Kerry on Monday defended the NSA surveillance program targeting Latin America and downplayed its impact on efforts to deepen relations with the region. Brazil and Colombia, two of the United States’ closest allies in the region, have been rankled by reports of the spying program.
Kerry sought to play down the rift during a news conference in Bogota, the Colombian capital, saying the U.S. and Colombia work cooperatively on a huge number of issues and that the NSA surveillance figured only briefly in his talks with Colombian officials.
Kerry arrived late Sunday in Bogota at a time when the country is holding peace talks to end a half century-old conflict with the Western Hemisphere’s most potent rebel army, a rebel force diminished in strength thanks in considerable measure to U.S. military and intelligence support.
Kerry met Monday with Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.
Santos said last week that he wanted clarification from Washington on whether U.S. intelligence-gathering in Colombia had overstepped the countries’ joint operations against drug traffickers and illegal armed groups. The United States has supplied Colombia with eavesdropping equipment, technicians and aerial surveillance.
Santos said in an interview with The Associated Press that Vice President Joe Biden called him about the issue following revelations by Snowden that U.S digital snooping has targeted allies as well as foes. Santos said Biden offered a series of technical explanations. Asked if he was satisfied with them, Santos replied, “We are in that process.”
Biden also called Rousseff to express what Brazil’s communications minister, Helena Chagas, said was “his regret over the negative repercussions caused by the disclosures.” Biden invited Brazilian officials to Washington to get details about the spy program.
Rousseff told Biden that the privacy of Brazilian citizens and the country’s sovereignty cannot be infringed upon in the name of security, and that Brazil wanted the United States to change its security policies and practices.
Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported last month that citizens of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and other countries were among the targets of a massive NSA operation to secretly gather information about phone calls and Internet communications worldwide. The reports were based on information provided by Snowden.
Last week, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota was at the United Nations with counterparts from other South American nations to express their indignation about the spy program to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The Obama administration has worked to forge stronger ties with Latin America. In May, Obama took a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica. Biden has visited Colombia and Brazil, where he said stronger trade ties and closer cooperation in education, science and other fields should usher in a new era of U.S.-Brazil relations this year.
Brazil has received much attention in recent months because of Pope Francis’ visit and preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.