US Secretary of State John Kerry went into overtime Saturday in his bid to revive long dormant Middle East peace talks as he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a third straight day.
Kerry was shuttling back and forth between Jerusalem and Amman, where he saw Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, as US officials insisted on a virtual blackout of negotiation details as they hoped to reach a deal.
“Working hard,” Kerry told a reporter who asked if he was making progress as he and Abbas began their second round of talks in as many days. Kerry later flew back to see Netanyahu after the end of the Jewish sabbath.
For their latest meeting, Netanyahu was accompanied by officials including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s designated negotiator to talks with the Palestinians, while Kerry brought aides who specialise in technical details.
In a potential sign of headway, Kerry cancelled a dinner he had scheduled for Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, part of his separate tour in the past week through Gulf Arab states to coordinate support for rebels in Syria’s civil war.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry would still head to a meeting of Asian ministers in Brunei starting on Monday but called off the Abu Dhabi stop because his “meetings on the peace process remain ongoing”.
Kerry is up against a tight schedule to leave Sunday in time for the Brunei meetings and US officials said he hoped to speak one more time with Abbas, who has returned to Ramallah in the West Bank, after the dinner with Netanyahu.
“Kerry is willing to put in the legwork necessary to move this process forward in a meaningful way,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
Kerry was expected to hold a news conference before leaving the Middle East.
Israeli public radio, quoting diplomatic sources, spoke of the possibility of a four-way meeting in Amman in the coming week, although Netanyahu himself appeared to dismiss the report during a brief photo opportunity with Kerry.
Even before the latest dinner, Kerry had spent seven hours sounding out the Israeli premier and four-and-a-half hours talking to Abbas. His immediate goal is a resumption of direct negotiations on the long-running conflict.
The Israelis and Palestinians have not formally met for peace talks since September 2010 and even then the negotiations broke down quickly, with Abbas saying Israel was not serious about a discussion on the future.
The Palestinian side wants Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements on occupied land and to promise any negotiations will be based on the principle of Israel withdrawing from land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Netanyahu has rejected such “pre-conditions” but insists he remains ready to talk.
One idea floated is for Israel to agree not to announce new settlement construction but to make the commitment informally — reducing the risk of revolt in Netanyahu’s largely right-wing governing coalition.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, recently described the Palestinian issue as “shrapnel in the buttocks” — a problem Israel simply had to keep suffering through — but threatened to quit if the government agreed to a Palestinian state.
Abbas, whose rule is effectively confined to the West Bank, also faces Palestinian divisions.
Ismail Haniya, the Gaza-based prime minister of the rival Hamas movement, warned Abbas on Friday not to fall into the “trap of negotiations”.
But Kerry heard encouraging words from Israeli President Shimon Peres over a two-hour Friday night dinner following the meeting with Netanyahu.
Peres now holds a largely ceremonial role but was identified with the peace process while prime minister.
The nearly 90-year-old Peres, welcoming Kerry at his official residence full of memorabilia from the decades-old peace process, acknowledged that “it is difficult, there are many problems” in moving forward.
“But as far as I’m concerned I can see how (among) people, there is a clear majority for the peace process, a two-state solution, and a great expectation that you will do it and that you can do it,” Peres told him.