Indian Sikhs pay their respects during the Maghi Mela at the Sikh Shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar on January 14, 2014
Indian Sikhs pay their respects during the Maghi Mela at the Sikh Shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar on January 14, 2014 © Narinder Nanu - AFP/File
Indian Sikhs pay their respects during the Maghi Mela at the Sikh Shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar on January 14, 2014
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AFP
Last updated: January 15, 2014

Kerry downplays Israeli minister's comments

US Secretary of State John Kerry vowed Wednesday to press his drive for Middle East peace despite a slur by Israel's defence minister that sparked a furious row between the allies.

Kerry said he was not prepared to let the comments of one individual derail the marathon peace push which has seen him visit the Middle East 10 times in less than a year in the quest for a framework agreement by April.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon had reportedly described that quest as the "obsession" of a man with a "sense of messianism," sparking outrage in the White House which described the comments as "offensive".

Yaalon later apologised but the spat underlined the estrangement between the longtime allies which has already seen angry public rows over Iran policy and Israel's defiant drive to expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank in the midst of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Kerry himself brushed off the personal attack without mentioning the minister by name and pledged to keep up his intensive shuttle diplomacy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and "willing" participants in the peace process.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu and I talk regularly and we are both very committed to moving the process forward, and we just can't let one set of comments undermine that effort and I don't intend to," Kerry said.

"Everywhere I go, even here today, everybody I talk to expresses gratitude to the efforts the United States is making, for President (Barack) Obama's commitment to try to make peace between Palestinians and Israelis," he told reporters in Kuwait, where he was attending a Syria donors' conference.

"I am going to work with the willing participants who are committed to peace and committed to this process."

In private conversations between Israeli and US officials, revealed by the top-selling Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, Yaalon was quoted as expressing hope that Kerry would abandon plans to make an 11th visit later this month to keep up his peace efforts.

He was quoted as saying that Kerry was naive and that a plan he drew up for Israel's security after Palestinian statehood "isn't worth the paper it was written on."

"Secretary of State John Kerry -- who arrived here determined, and who operates from an incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism -- can't teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians," he reportedly said.

Yaalon apologised to Kerry late Tuesday, but did not challenge the accuracy of the comments attributed to him.

"The defence minister had no intention to cause any offence to the secretary, and he apologises if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister," a statement issued by his office said.

"Israel and the United States share a common goal to advance the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians led by Secretary Kerry."

The personal nature of Yaalon's criticism of the US top diplomat was widely disavowed by fellow ministers, although not his complaints about Kerry's peace proposals.

There has been widespread resistance within Netanyahu's rightwing government to Kerry's proposals for future security arrangements between a Palestinian state and neighbouring Jordan, and his pressure for a halt to settlement expansion.

A senior official in the ruling rightwing Likud said the defence minister had merely vocalised what Netanyahu himself was thinking.

"Boogie said out loud what Netanyahu would like to say," the official told Yediot, using the defence minister's nickname.

"You hear his aides in the bureau and you understand the spirit of things. Kerry is a burden."

The US top diplomat acknowledged Wednesday the difficulties that still lie ahead to achieve a framework deal within the nine months the two sides agreed to when they relaunched talks in July.

"After five months of negotiations, I believe strongly in the prospect for peace and I know that the status quo is not sustainable," Kerry said.

"There are hard choices to be made. We are going to work with both sides."

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