Top US diplomat John Kerry met Palestinian leaders Sunday on a fresh mission to forge a new path forward after a years-long impasse in Middle East peace negotiations.
Flying in from Istanbul, the first stop on a 10-day overseas trip, the US secretary of state’s convoy sped directly to the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank.
Kerry said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul that he saw Ankara as “an important contributor to the process of peace,” adding it could help with building up the shaky Palestinian economy.
But Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s newly appointed lead negotiator for peace talks, played down the idea of Ankara’s immediate involvement, saying it was “interesting, but it could take time.”
Washington’s top diplomat also urged Turkey and Israel to fully normalise their relationship two weeks after the Jewish state’s US-brokered apology for a deadly 2010 raid on a Gaza aid flotilla organised by a Turkish charity.
Kerry, President Barack Obama’s new pointman on the Middle East, is leading a renewed US effort to coax Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations which have been frozen since September 2010.
He held talks with Abbas for the third time in a little over a month, in what a top State Department official called “a constructive meeting.”
First the two leaders met for about 20 minutes flanked by several top Palestinian and US officials, focusing on economic development and how to tap into resources and the private sector. The Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas, is facing a huge budget deficit and economic crisis.
Kerry and Abbas then met for a one-to-one lasting almost an hour during which they “agreed to continue working together to determine the best path forward.”
Abbas said the release of prisoners held by Israel was a “top priority” for resuming peace talks.
“President Abbas stressed that the release of the prisoners is a priority that creates an appropriate climate for the possibility of moving the peace process forward,” his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
The US diplomat insisted however that the specifics of their solo talks “be kept in the room in order to keep moving forward in a positive direction.”
As the talks got under way, militants in Gaza fired a rocket which crashed into an uninhabited part of southern Israel without causing casualties or damage, police said.
The Gaza-Israel border has been largely quiet for the last four months since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ended a deadly eight-day confrontation in November.
When Abbas hosted Obama in Ramallah last month, the Palestinian leader made clear there would be no return to negotiations without a settlement freeze.
But he has also made it known he would suspend for two months all unilateral efforts to seek international recognition to give US-brokered efforts a chance, a Palestinian official told AFP last week.
Abbas also wants Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present a map of the borders of a future Palestinian state before talks can resume.
“Any return to negotiations requires Netanyahu to agree on 1967 borders,” his political adviser Nimr Hammad told AFP referring to the lines that existed before the Six Day War when Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has on several occasions said he would not accept a return to the 1967 lines.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu said Israel cannot rely on any other country, even an ally, when it comes to facing up to the perceived nuclear threat from Iran.
“We appreciate the efforts of the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear programme,” Netanyahu said on the eve of Holocaust Day.
“But at no stage will we abandon our fate into the hands of other countries, even our best friends,” he said, in an apparent reference to the United States.
Kerry will Monday join a ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day before meeting Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad and then Israeli President Shimon Peres.
He will meet Netanyahu on Tuesday morning before leaving for London for a meeting of G8 foreign ministers.