JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday, hoping to breathe life into peace talks that have quickly run into trouble.
Three months after the U.S.-brokered talks were launched, there have been no visible signs of progress, and both sides have reverted to a familiar pattern of finger pointing. With the talks set to end in April, the deadlock is raising speculation that the U.S. may need to step up its involvement and present its own blueprint for peace early next year, or perhaps lower expectations and pursue a limited, interim agreement.
Underscoring the challenge ahead, a Palestinian official said that a secret negotiating session held Tuesday broke down in an acrimonious dispute over Israeli settlement construction.
Upon his arrival, Kerry said he had come "without any illusions about the difficulties" but remained committed to the goal of forging a final agreement.
After months of cajoling, Kerry persuaded Israel and the Palestinians to reopen peace talks in late July after a nearly five-year break. The sides have committed to hold nine months of talks in hopes of reaching a peace deal that would end decades of conflict.
The parties have largely honored Kerry's request to keep the content of the negotiations secret. But officials on both sides have acknowledged that no progress has been made, though they say that the talks have addressed all key issues at the core of the dispute. These include defining the borders of a future Palestine, and addressing Israeli security demands.
The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. They say they're willing to adjust those borders to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements as part of a "land swap."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes a withdrawal to Israel's pre-1967 lines, saying such borders would be indefensible.
He has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they reject on the grounds that it would harm the rights of Israel's Arab minority and Palestinian refugees who claim lost properties inside what is now Israel. Netanyahu also rejects shared control of east Jerusalem, home to key religious sites and the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.
For years, the Palestinians refused to sit down with Netanyahu while he continued to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say continued expansion of the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is a sign of bad faith.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, the Palestinians reluctantly agreed to drop their demand for a settlement freeze in return for Israeli pledges to release about 100 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, and vague assurances that any settlement construction would be restrained.
The U.S.-brokered formula has been put to the test in recent days. Israel released a second batch of prisoners, all of whom had been convicted of murdering Israelis, setting off a painful debate over the merits of such a move. Joyful Palestinian celebrations welcoming the prisoners home as heroes added to the Israeli public's anger.
Netanyahu responded to the prisoner release by announcing plans to build thousands of homes in settlements, angering the Palestinians.
A Palestinian official said the outrage over the settlement plans boiled over at a secret negotiating session with the Israelis in Jerusalem. The official said the meeting, held at Kerry's request, "exploded" over the settlement issue, and that the talks were abruptly halted. Abbas was expected to raise the matter with Kerry at a meeting in the West Bank on Wednesday.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the pledge not to discuss the negotiations in public. Israeli officials had no immediate comment.
Soon after arriving in Israel, Kerry visited the Tel Aviv memorial for slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who reached a landmark peace agreement with the Palestinians before he was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995.
A very small but vocal group of protesters against the prisoner release heckled Kerry as he laid a wreath at the memorial chanting, "Don't free terrorists."
"I come here without any illusions about the difficulties but I come here determined to work with the leaders ... To try to find a way forward so that Israel can live the dream that (Rabin) pressed so eloquently and beautifully on the tragedy of that day," Kerry said.
With the climate soured and differences seemingly insurmountable, Israeli and Palestinian voices have begun to discuss greater U.S. involvement, or an alternative approach.
"President Abbas is going to tell Mr. Kerry tomorrow that the U.S. either intervenes directly in the peace talks or lets them hit a dead end," said Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"The question now: Is the U.S. interested in rescuing its initiative? Or is it leaving the fate of this initiative in the hands of Israel? We are going to ask the U.S. to propose a solution and see who is going to say yes and who is going to say no," he added.
Zehava Galon, an opposition Israeli lawmaker, said she had been told by both American and Palestinian officials that the U.S. is planning on presenting a peace plan early next year if the talks do not make progress.
She said the plan would be would similar to a proposal presented by President Bill Clinton in 2000 giving the Palestinians some 95 percent of the West Bank, continued Israeli control over territory holding 80 percent of the settler population, and shared control of Jerusalem.
In an interview, Galon, who was recently in Washington, would not say to whom she had spoken. But she claimed that Kerry had discussed his intentions with Netanyahu at a recent meeting in Rome. Netanyahu said this week he is willing to review any proposal, but vowed to stick to his security demands.
Gideon Saar, an Israeli Cabinet minister who is close to Netanyahu, accused the Palestinians of showing a "total lack of flexibility" in the negotiations and said it was likely the talks could move toward pursuit of an interim deal. Many observers think that an interim agreement is the best that can be reached in the current circumstances, giving the Palestinians some semblance of statehood in parts of the West Bank while putting off talks on the most difficult issues until later. The Palestinian Authority currently has some self-rule in parts of the West Bank, but Israel maintains overall control.
"I don't rule out an interim deal," Saar told the Army Radio station. "I don't think that if that is raised, Israel would object."
The Palestinians vehemently oppose an interim deal, fearing a temporary arrangement that falls short of their demands will become permanent.
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said "there is a fair chance" that something will happen in the coming months because of American pressure.
"John Kerry is not there for a failure," he said. "If the negotiations fail the situation will be worse than in the beginning."
Matthew Lee in Tel Aviv, Ian Deitch and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.