JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in breakneck shuttle diplomacy to coax Israel and the Palestinians back into peace talks, is flying to the West Bank on Sunday to have a third meeting in as many days with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials have declined to disclose details of the past three days of closed-door meetings, but Kerry’s decision to fly from Jerusalem to Ramallah, West Bank, to see Abbas again before he leaves the region was an indication that the secretary believes there is a chance of bringing the two sides together.
There is deep skepticism that Kerry can get the two sides to agree on a two-state solution — something that has eluded presidents and diplomats for years. But the flurry of meetings has heightened expectations that the two sides can be persuaded to at least restart talks, which broke down in 2008.
In the past, 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.
So far, there have been no public signs that the two sides are narrowing their differences.
Azzam al-Ahmad, an official with Abbas’ Fatah movement who met with the Palestinian president Saturday night, was not optimistic.
He told the Voice of Palestine Sunday morning that no progress had been made in Kerry’s efforts concerning the Palestinians demand that Israel freeze settlements in occupied areas, recognize the 1967 borders and release prisoners.
“Kerry is doing his best and we appreciate these efforts, but so far he didn’t bring anything from the Israelis on our demands of the settlements freeze, recognizing the ’67 borders and releasing the pre-Oslo prisoners,” he said. He was referring to prisoners held since before the so-called Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, a peace effort that established the Palestinian Authority.
“President Abbas told Kerry he wants him to continue his efforts but we can’t wait forever,” al-Ahmad said.
Kerry has only uttered two words about his talks. “Working hard” is all Kerry would say when a reporter asked him at a photo-op whether progress was being made.
Despite the lack of readouts, there are several clues that the meetings have been more than routine chats.
Most of Kerry’s meetings have lasted at least two hours and several of them were much longer. His initial dinner meeting Thursday night with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clocked at four, and the one Saturday night in a hotel suite with the Israeli prime minister and his advisers lasted more than six hours.
After the meeting broke up past 3 a.m., Kerry took a pre-dawn stroll in Jerusalem with senior advisers. Kerry, the sleeves on his white shirt rolled up his arms, walked with a security escort to a park near the hotel, gesturing and talking with his top advisers on the Mideast peace process.
There were still more hints that Kerry’s discussions might be gaining traction.
Legal, military and other officials accompanied Netanyahu at the meeting, perhaps an indication that discussions had reached a more detailed level.
Kerry canceled a visit to Abu Dhabi on his two-week swing through Asia and the Mideast because of his extended discussions on the Mideast peace process in Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan.
And just the sheer number of meetings since Thursday — three with Netanyahu and soon-to-be three with Abbas — could indicate that the two sides are at least interested in trying to find a way back to the negotiating table.
A senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry would travel to Ramallah on Sunday to meet Abbas. The U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the negotiations by name and requested anonymity.
The meeting, however, will further squeeze Kerry’s itinerary. He’s scheduled to be at a Southeast Asia security conference on Monday and Tuesday in Brunei — some 5,400 miles from Israel. On the sidelines of the conference, Kerry is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an exchange that likely will focus on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Kerry also is to have a trilateral discussion with Japanese and South Korean officials that likely will include the topic of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
For now, however, Kerry has his head in the Middle East. Except for quick flights to meetings in Amman, Kerry mostly has been holed up on the upper floors of a hotel near Jerusalem’s Old City engaged in deep, serious conversations about the decades-old conflict. On other floors, the hotel has been hosting large family gatherings, and noisy children in party clothes have been running up and down the hallways, oblivious to Kerry’s presence.
Abbas made significant progress with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in talks in 2007 and 2008, but believes there is little point in negotiating with the current Israeli leader.
Netanyahu has adopted much tougher starting positions than Olmert, refusing to recognize Israel’s pre-1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks and saying east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital, is off the table. Abbas and his aides suspect Netanyahu wants to resume talks for the sake of negotiating and creating a diplomatic shield for Israel, not in order to reach an agreement.
Abbas has much to lose domestically if he drops his demands that Netanyahu either freeze settlement building or recognize the 1967 frontier as a starting point before talks can resume. Netanyahu has rejected both demands. A majority of Palestinians, disappointed after 20 years of fruitless negotiations with Israel, opposes a return to talks on Netanyahu’s terms.
While details of the ongoing discussions have remained closely held, it has not quelled speculation. Midday Saturday, news reports said a four-way meeting was going to be held in coming days with the U.S. Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians at the table.
“They’re saying a four-way summit, did you hear that?” Netanyahu asked Kerry during a photo-op before his latest meeting with Kerry.
“I did,” Kerry replied.
There is speculation that talks are going well and that they’re headed nowhere.
Asked if the two sides were close to resuming negotiations, Israeli Cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan told Channel 2 TV: “Regrettably, so far, no.”
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.