Kerry plunges back into Mideast peace diplomacy

AP News
Posted: Jun 28, 2013 1:41 AM
Kerry plunges back into Mideast peace diplomacy

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Plunging back into the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a four-hour meeting and fish dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that stretched into the early hours of Friday.

It is Kerry's fifth visit to the region since becoming secretary of state in February to try to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, which broke down in 2008. He is to have lunch with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in Amman, and more meetings could be in the offing.

Kerry, who is on a two-week swing through the Mideast and Asia, left Amman on Thursday evening in a convoy of nearly a dozen vehicles for the roughly 90-minute drive to Jerusalem. A Jordanian military helicopter flew over his convoy during the trip, according to a reporter who was allowed to make the trip with Kerry and his delegation.

Netanyahu was about an hour late, apparently telling Kerry that he was delayed because he had been attending a graduation ceremony for Israeli military pilots. They talked mostly one-on-one, but advisers also were present for some of the discussion, which began around 9:30 p.m. local time in a suite at a hotel in Jerusalem and ended around 1:30 a.m. Friday.

The State Department released the dinner menu — fish ceviche and a main course of red tuna and sea bream over lentils and mushrooms — but offered no detailed information about their talks. The State Department said only that the two had a "productive, in-depth and wide-ranging conversation" and that Kerry reiterated his commitment to working with all parties to achieve a two-state solution.

There was no readout from the Israelis.

State Department officials say Kerry will continue to try to find common ground between the two sides that would lead to a re-launching of negotiations. On this trip, Kerry is trying to pin down precisely what conditions Abbas and Netanyahu have for resuming talks and perhaps discuss confidence-building measures.

Beyond that, Kerry wants to talk about the positive outcomes, such as enhanced economic growth, of a two-state solution. But at the same time, the secretary, who has long-time relationships with officials from both sides, will remind them of what's at stake if the conflict is left unresolved, they said.

Earlier this month, in a speech to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, Kerry warned of serious consequences if no deal is reached.

"Think about what could happen next door," he told the Jewish audience. " The Palestinian Authority has committed itself to a policy of nonviolence. ... Up until recently, not one Israeli died from anything that happened from the West Bank until there was a settler killed about a month ago.

"But if that experiment is allowed to fail, ask yourselves: What will replace it? What will happen if the Palestinian economy implodes, if the Palestinian Security Forces dissolve, if the Palestinian Authority fails? ... The failure of the moderate Palestinian leadership could very well invite the rise of the very thing that we want to avoid: the same extremism in the West Bank that we have seen in Gaza or from southern Lebanon."

So far, there have been no public signals that the two sides are narrowing their differences.

Abbas has said he won't negotiate unless Israel stops building settlements on war-won lands or accepts its 1967 lines — before the capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in a Mideast war that year — as a starting point for border talks. The Palestinians claim all three areas for their future state.

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Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demands, saying there should be no pre-conditions — though his predecessor conducted talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, and the international community views the settlements as illegal or illegitimate.

Earlier on Thursday, Kerry talked about the crisis in Syria and the Mideast peace process over lunch with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

In a statement, the Royal Palace said Abdullah told Kerry that he will continue trying to bridge the gaps in the viewpoints of Palestinians and Israelis. But he warned that Israel's "unilateral actions, which include continuous Israeli trespassing on Christian and Muslim holy sites, undermine chances for peace."

On Wednesday, an Israeli planning committee gave the final approval for construction of dozens of new homes in a settlement in east Jerusalem. The announcement, which was made the day before Kerry's visit, appeared to be an Israeli snub at the secretary of state's latest round of Mideast diplomacy.

Officials traveling with Kerry sought to minimize the significance of the announcement, saying the U.S. has repeatedly said that continued construction of settlements were unhelpful to efforts to restart the talks. The settlements are part of the Har Homa area of east Jerusalem. The Obama administration said it was "deeply concerned" back in 2011 when an Israeli planning commission approved 930 new housing units in the Har Homa neighborhood.

The Palestinian side condemned the announcement.

"Such behavior proves that the Israeli government is determined to undermine Secretary Kerry's efforts at every level," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.


Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman contributed to this report.