Kerry Sees Progress in Effort to Revive Mideast Talks

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TEL AVIV -- Secretary of State John Kerry wound up his most intensive push yet for a revival of Middle East peace talks on Sunday without achieving a breakthrough, but he said that his four days of marathon meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders had yielded "real progress" and that a resumption of substantive negotiations could be "within reach." He said he would return to the region soon.

"We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably," Mr. Kerry told reporters at Ben Gurion International Airport before flying to Asia for a meeting of foreign ministers. "We have made real progress on this trip, and I believe that with a little more work the start of final status negotiations could be within reach."

"I am very hopeful that we are close to an approach that will work, but it will take a little bit more time to work through some of the details and modalities," Mr. Kerry added. "I am absolutely confident that we are on the right track and that all of the parties are working in very good faith."

Mr. Kerry made his comments after a hectic weekend of shuttle diplomacy. He canceled a scheduled stop in the United Arab Emirates to press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to return to the negotiating table after years of stalemate. He met three times with each leader and their top aides, including a six-hour session with the Israelis in Jerusalem that ended at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday. Later, he drove to the West Bank for a two-hour talk with Mr. Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, described the meeting as "positive and profound," but, he added, "there has been no breakthrough so far, and there is still a gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions."

Mr. Netanyahu had earlier told his cabinet, "Israel is prepared to enter negotiations without delay, without preconditions."

"There are things that we will stand on with strength in these discussions, the first of which is security," the prime minister said. "We will not compromise security, and there will not be any agreement that will endanger the security of citizens of Israel."

The sticking points are familiar: Mr. Abbas is insisting on a freeze on the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the release of some 120 Palestinians who have been in Israeli prisons for more than 20 years and the use of the pre-1967 borders as the basis of negotiations. Israeli newspapers reported Sunday that Mr. Netanyahu had expressed a willingness to release prisoners, but only in stages, and to freeze settlement construction, but only outside of three large blocs that he says must remain part of Israel. There are also indications that both sides might accept an American statement on the 1967 borders, along with one about Israel being a Jewish state, allowing the parties to avoid having to say it themselves.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the diplomacy, said that Mr. Netanyahu had agreed Sunday on "a package" of concessions and confidence-building measures in hopes of luring Mr. Abbas to the table. "I think it's a good package; Netanyahu took serious steps," the official said. "Now it depends on Abu Mazen," the official added, using the name by which Mr. Abbas is widely known. "We'll see."

But even as Mr. Kerry worked around the clock, controversy continued over settlement building. A hearing is scheduled for Monday regarding a new neighborhood of 930 apartments in the Har Homa area of southern Jerusalem that Israel annexed after the 1967 war. Har Homa is considered an illegal settlement under international law, and the development is particularly problematic for the Palestinians because it would separate Bethlehem, in the West Bank, from parts of East Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu's government has not started any settlement projects during Mr. Kerry's three-month push for peace talks, but it has allowed approved developments to move closer to construction.

Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, said a city hearing on the development of public spaces in the neighborhood was a routine step that was automatically scheduled after the apartments were approved three years ago. "This is not a provocation," Ms. Sprung said. "It has nothing to do with the Kerry visit."

From the start, Mr. Kerry acknowledged that restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks started would be a formidable undertaking. But he has been resolute in saying that it is possible to find a formula that could lead to the first formal negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since 2010.

As he left the Middle East on Sunday, Mr. Kerry left some of his team behind to continue to consult with the two sides. But Israeli and Palestinian analysts remain doubtful about the prospects for meaningful progress. The two sides remain too far apart, they said, and both leaders face political impediments. Though analysts from both sides are impressed by the intensity of Mr. Kerry's efforts, they noted that he had yet to publicly reveal any proposals that would change the dynamic.

"It appears that nothing will come of the determined Kerry's fifth visit," Eitan Haber, a longtime Israeli journalist, wrote in a column published Sunday in Yediot Aharanot. "Nor the sixth, seventh and eighth. Even if an Israeli-Palestinian meeting is held, its chances of bringing about an end to the conflict are slim to nil."

Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, and a former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said "progress" was "the diplomatic way of saying it's not working now but it's not the end of the line."

"Because it's dangerous to say that it's over -- that mistake was done once in the history of the peace process," Mr. Khatib said, referring to the end of the Camp David talks in 2000 and the start of the second intifada, or uprising. "I think they learned the lesson and they always say, 'We're making a little bit of progress and we're continuing,' just to keep hope."

"I think he will come back," Mr. Khatib added of Mr. Kerry. "I think he will continue because none of the parties can afford giving the impression that it's over."

Michael R. Gordon reported from Tel Aviv, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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