Kerry upbeat after 3 days of Mideast diplomacy

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US Secretary of State John Kerry (AP Photo)

US Secretary of State John Kerry (AP Photo)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday wrapped up three days of high-level Mideast diplomacy on a positive note, saying he held “very constructive talks” with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and promising to press on in an effort to break a four-year deadlock over resuming direct negotiations.

Talking to reporters after holding private talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry said the parties all committed to a process that could “create the conditions for peace” so that they can return to the negotiating table. Kerry said he would soon announce new measures to help the Palestinian economy, but offered no details on how he plans to tackle the deeper issues at the heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry stressed that he was mindful of the “good intentions and failed efforts” that have dogged Middle East diplomacy in the past and said he’d focus on “laying the groundwork so we can bring people to the table with a clear understanding of what we’re beginning on, what we’re trying to do, and where we’re trying to end up.”

Kerry, who has committed the United States to a multi-month diplomatic effort, stressed that he was being intentionally coy on the specifics of his new peace push. “It’s not going to be done and shouldn’t be done in piecemeal public releases,” he said. “It’s best done quietly.”

Peace talks broke down in late 2008 and have remained frozen since then. The Palestinians have refused to resume talks while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas where they hope to establish an independent state. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions.

Kerry sought to lower expectations ahead of this week’s trip, his third to the region since becoming secretary of state, saying he was coming primarily to listen and learn. But he made clear that his aim is to move beyond goodwill gestures and resume talks on the issues at the heart of the conflict, such as borders between Israel and a future Palestine, security arrangements, the conflicting claims to east Jerusalem and its holy sites and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

In a preliminary step, Kerry said he would engage in a parallel effort to break down red tape and other barriers to economic progress in the West Bank to improve the lives of Palestinians and provide a climate for two-state solution. He said such an effort would also improve Israel’s security. The Palestinians, along with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, have long complained that Israeli travel restrictions are stifling the West Bank’s economy.

Netanyahu told reporters earlier Tuesday that he wanted peace. He welcomed proposals for economic assistance to the Palestinians, but said issues of recognition and security remain “foremost in our minds.”

“I’m determined not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all,” he told reporters before meeting Kerry. Addressing Kerry, he said, “This is a real effort and we look forward to advance in this effort with you.”

Netanyahu has not signaled how far he is prepared to go in meeting Palestinian demands, but it appears unlikely it will be close to what the Palestinians seek. His new government is full of hard-liners affiliated with the Jewish settler movement who will put up a tough fight to any broad concessions to the Palestinians.

Palestinian officials welcomed Kerry’s efforts and said they had proposed that Israel make additional gestures, such as halting settlement construction and releasing some of the 4,500 Palestinian prisoners it is holding. The officials also said Jordan wants to play a role in peace efforts, perhaps by hosting future negotiations. Jordan is one of two Arab countries with a peace agreement with Israel and often serves as a mediator. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the Kerry visit with reporters.

Kerry stressed that he was not trying to dictate the terms of any peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, and that all differences would need to be worked out through negotiations.

He noted the importance of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which got renewed attention this week when Kerry and Arab officials discussed modifying its terms. But he said the document belongs to Arab countries themselves.

“It suggests … a way forward for the Arab world to make peace with Israel,” he said. “As such, it remains a very important statement.”

The Arab peace plan is likely to come up in discussions when an Arab League delegation visits Washington on April 29.

Addressing his talks with Mideast figures, Kerry said, “Each them made very serious and well-considered, constructive suggestions with respect to what the road forward might look like. And they all embraced the goal that we all share here. So this effort is not just about getting the parties into direct negotiations. It’s about getting everybody in the best position to succeed.”

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