WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry will bypass Israel on his first official trip to the Middle East, U.S. officials said Tuesday as they announced a jam-packed itinerary through nine nations, including several in Europe.
Kerry's maiden voyage begins Sunday. He will visit close U.S. allies and partners in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. His diplomacy will focus on the conflicts in Mali, Syria and Afghanistan, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
But there will be no stops in Israel or the Palestinian territories, which together have formed an epicenter of American diplomatic efforts over the past six decades.
Nuland said the U.S. was waiting for Israeli political parties to form a new government after their recent elections. "The Israelis are still working on their coalition," she told reporters, adding that Kerry won't travel to Jerusalem or Ramallah until this spring – when he accompanies President Barack Obama to the region.
The announcement will likely dampen any lingering hopes that the Obama administration might unveil a fresh initiative to revive the moribund Mideast peace process.
The State Department never formally announced Kerry stops in Israel or the West Bank on his first trip, but officials had included them among the most likely destinations and predicted that the 2004 presidential candidate's visit would lay the groundwork for Obama's upcoming visit.
Kerry, who is scheduled to return to Washington on March 6, will meet first with senior British officials in London. He'll then discuss trans-Atlantic issues with German youth in Berlin, where he spent time as a child as the son of an American diplomat posted to the divided Cold War outpost.
In Paris, Kerry will discuss France's ongoing intervention in Mali. And in Rome, he'll attend a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders.
Nuland said the former Massachusetts senator is primarily on a "listening tour" when it comes to Syria, and wouldn't be advocating any shift in U.S. policy that would see American military support for the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime. He will continue Syria diplomacy in meetings in Cairo; Ankara, Turkey; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Doha, Qatar.
Not on the agenda as of yet is a face-to-face meeting with the foreign minister of Russia, which up to now has stymied American efforts to halt the violence in Syria through international sanctions or other pressure. Washington also charges Moscow with providing Assad continued military and diplomatic support two years into a civil war that has claimed some 60,000 lives.
Kerry spoke by telephone over the weekend with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the two agreed to meet soon – despite the ongoing disagreements between their governments.
"If it works on the trip, that's great," Nuland said. "If not, then we'll keep working on soon thereafter."