Top US diplomat John Kerry on Tuesday wrapped up three days of “very constructive” talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, pledging new efforts to help the West Bank economy as he sought to bring the sides back to the table.
Speaking to reporters shortly before leaving for London, a cautious Kerry said it was more important to find ways of resuming the long-frozen negotiations correctly rather than “quickly.”
On another key Middle East conflict, he said he would meet members of Syria’s opposition in London where he was to attend a summit of G8 foreign ministers.
His Jerusalem and Ramallah stopover was the second leg of a 10-day trip which will also take him on his first visit to Asia since taking over as Washington’s top diplomat.
During the visit, Kerry met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in pursuit of what he called a “quiet strategy” for ending decades of mistrust between the two sides, who have not held direct talks since September 2010.
“Each of them made very serious and well-constructed suggestions with respect to what the road forward might look like,” he told reporters at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport just before leaving.
But “doing it right is more important than doing it quickly,” he said.
On Monday night, Kerry held “very productive” dinner talks with Netanyahu and the two met for a second time early Tuesday.
“We made progress … and each of us agreed to do some homework” with the aim of “seeing how we can really pull all of the pieces together,” he said as Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to return to talks.
“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,” the Israeli leader said, noting the key issues of security and of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Kerry also said the two had discussed “specific steps we could take to break the red tape” hampering Palestinian economic growth in a move he said would ultimately improve Israel’s security.
Earlier this week, Kerry said moves to bolster the teetering Palestinian economy “could be critical to changing perceptions and realities on the ground” although he did not elaborate.
“We are going to engage in new efforts, very specific efforts, to promote economic development and remove… bottlenecks and barriers that exist with respect to commerce in the West Bank,” he said Tuesday.
It would involve “increased business expansion and private sector investment in the West Bank,” he added.
During the Ramallah meeting, Abbas lobbied hard on the issue of freeing Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, saying it was a “top priority” for resuming talks.
“President Abbas made a passionate argument to me about the prisoners and I think the government of Israel has a full understanding of the potency of that issue,” Kerry said.
The fate of prisoners is a flashpoint issue closely watched by the Palestinian street which often sparks mass protests that tend to turn into clashes with the Israeli army.
In parallel to Kerry’s efforts, Arab states are also seeking ways of reviving peace moves.
Abbas attended a meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative committee in Doha on Monday.
First proposed in 2002 by Saudi King Abdullah, the API offers Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for its complete withdrawal from all occupied territories and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.
Kerry admitted the API might not suit as a basis for negotiations “in its current format.”
But “any document where you have a proposal for peace and you have a dozen Arab countries willing to make peace… (is) an important contribution to the dialogue,” he said.
Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, however, is likely to face an uphill struggle with Israel’s army radio indicating Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition would reject a Palestinian request for a map of the future borders and refuse any “significant goodwill gestures.”
And Yediot Aharonot newspaper said Abbas flatly rejected a proposal by Kerry for a four-way meeting in Amman with the US and Jordan “unless Israel first took some sort of meaningful action.”
It also looked unlikely there would be any Israeli flexibility on the flashpoint issue of settlement building, with Housing Minister Uri Ariel ruling out any construction freeze in annexed east Jerusalem or the West Bank.
Abbas has ruled out any return to negotiations while Israel continues to build on land they want for a future state.
Meanwhile, Kerry said he would talk with Syrian opposition in London, although rebel leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib was not expected to attend. He refused to spell out whether Washington was mulling military aid to the rebels.