U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wound up three days of shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders today saying the resumption of peace talks was “within reach” after a three-year impasse.
“We have had very positive discussions, very important discussions, for the last few days,” Kerry told reporters after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. “We agreed we have made real progress, but we have a few things we need to work on.”
Kerry extended his Mideast shuttle and canceled a planned visit to Abu Dhabi to hold unscheduled rounds of talks with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he pressed to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
It was his fifth peace mission in the region since taking office in February, and his most intense yet, with three meetings apiece with both leaders as he raced among Amman, Jerusalem and Ramallah. He said he would leave staff on the ground to work on details and would give no details on the nature of the remaining obstacles.
“I believe that with a little more work, the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach,” he told reporters before he prepared to fly out of Israel. “The gaps were very broad when we began. They are now, I think, very narrow.”
He set no timetable for restarting negotiations. “We’re not going to get stuck with artificial deadlines,” he said. “That’s a big mistake.”
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, agreed that talks were held “in a positive atmosphere.”
“We are making progress,” he said. “We still have gaps to work with. I can’t say we achieved a breakthrough.”
An Israeli government spokesman could not be immediately reached.
Shortly before Kerry summed up the meetings, Israel and the Palestinians both repeated longstanding positions.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s decision-making central committee, told the official Voice of Palestine Radio that Israel must freeze settlement construction, release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners it holds and agree to base negotiations on borders it held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in 1967, territories the Palestinians want for a state. Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005.
Netanyahu said his country was ready to enter into negotiations without delay or conditions.
“We are not putting any obstacles in the way of renewing continuing talks and a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians,” he told his Cabinet, adding that Israel would insist that any agreement guarantee its security.
Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper, citing an unidentified Cabinet minister, said settlement construction was the sticking point.
Negotiations broke off before Netanyahu took office in May 2009 and resumed for only three weeks before collapsing again in September 2010 over settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the Palestinians say their growing presence on lands they claim for a future state is a sign Israel does not have good faith intentions toward reaching a peace deal.
Israel has repeatedly said it is committed to a two-state solution and that the fate of settlements should be decided in negotiations.
Kerry said on June 26 that some progress toward reviving the process needed to be made “long before September,” when the next session of the United Nations General Assembly begins. The assembly recognized a state of Palestine last year, and the Palestinians have threatened to use this status to pursue war-crimes charges against Israel.
Kerry’s next stop is Brunei, where he plans to participate in several days of meetings with leaders of Asia Pacific nations.
While in Brunei, Kerry also plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the war in Syria.
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