US Secretary of State John Kerry headed home from the Middle East on Monday, insisting progress had been made despite failing to reach a framework to guide Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
On his 10th visit to the region as the top US diplomat, Kerry devoted four days to intense diplomacy and spent hours locked in separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
He also made a surprise day trip to two key Arab allies, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
With the US remaining tight-lipped about the details, little news has filtered out about Kerry’s proposals to bridge the huge gaps between the two sides as they seek to draw up the contours of a long-elusive agreement on two states living side by side.
“Thereâs a lot of work that needs to happen, a lot of tough decisions that need to be made,” a State Department official told reporters aboard Kerry’s plane as it headed back to the United States.
“At some point there will be a document with the ideas from both parties, but weâre not going to make a prediction of when that will be.”
According to a report in Israeli daily Maariv, Kerry pressed Netanyahu to agree to a formula which would enable the return of some Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948.
Netanyahu refused, Maariv said. According to the newspaper, Israeli negotiators also wish to extend talks beyond their agreed April deadline to January 2015, in return for freezing some settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
Israel’s anti-settlement Peace Now group said Monday a plan for 272 new homes in West Bank settlements was approved on the eve of Kerry’s departure.
A defence ministry official said it was still in the planning applications stage.
However, Netanyahu told Likud party members on Monday he would make no “territorial concession” in the Jordan Valley, West Bank or annexed east Jerusalem, Channel 10 television reported.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be key to any peace deal.
Jordan’s historic role in the guardianship of Muslim sites in Israeli-annexed Arab east Jerusalem is recognised under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
And Saudi Arabia authored a 2002 peace plan which is the basis for Arab aspirations for any deal.
Kerry, who has made a Middle East peace deal a personal quest since taking office in February, is due to meet this week with top members of the Arab League to brief them on his discussions in Israel and the occupied West Bank.
This trip was clouded by bitter recriminations from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, accusing each other of not being serious partners in the search for peace.
On Sunday, Netanyahu renewed allegations that Palestinians were “continuing their campaign of inciting hatred”.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, reportedly told Kerry they will refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and remain steadfast in their opposition to Israel’s desire to keep troops on the border between the West Bank and Jordan.
Kerry left Monday without having reached an agreement on a framework to guide the negotiations in the crunch months ahead, but US officials had already warned there would be no breakthrough on this trip.
Special envoy Martin Indyk remained in the region, and Kerry said he would return soon.
Israeli media said he could be back as early as next week, but a senior State Department official speaking to reporters on his plane declined to comment, saying it had not yet been decided.
“We want to give the negotiators time to lay the groundwork for a trip that would be productive,” the official said.
Kerry pledged any accord will be “fair and balanced,” but acknowledged on Sunday his efforts might still fail.
“The path is becoming clearer, the puzzle is becoming more defined, and it is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are and what the options are with respect to those choices,” he said.
“But I cannot tell you when particularly the last pieces may decide to fall into place or may fall on the floor and leave the puzzle unfinished.”