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Kerry returning to Middle East as peace quest beckons

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

US Secretary of State John Kerry is headed back to the Middle East for his third trip in a month, foraging for signs that Israel and the Palestinians are ready to make tough sacrifices for peace.

In a surprise move, the State Department announced Wednesday that Kerry will return to Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories early next week to build on a series of talks last month between American and regional leaders.

Expectations are growing that the US administration is ready to resume some kind of shuttle diplomacy to rekindle the moribund peace process, which has stalled since late 2010 amid bitter recriminations on both sides.

But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland cautioned: "I would not expect the secretary to be putting down a plan."

President Barack Obama visited Israel and the West Bank in mid March, with Kerry then staying behind in the region to meet separately with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

"They've had some time to reflect on the visit," Nuland said. "So this a chance for the secretary to go back and to listen again and to hear what they think is possible."

"But he'll also be making clear that the parties themselves have to want to get back to the table, that this is a choice that they have to make, and that they've also got to recognize, both parties, that compromise and sacrifices are going to have to be made if we're going to be able to help."

Kerry will start his trip with a visit to Istanbul this weekend, with the two-year-old conflict in Syria that has cost more than 70,000 lives set to top the agenda of talks with senior Turkish officials.

Nuland would not go into details about the talks Sunday, but many of the top Syrian opposition leaders are based in Istanbul and he may seek to carve out some time to meet them.

Kerry's latest trip to Turkey also comes after Israel apologized to Ankara in late March for the deaths of nine Turkish activists in a botched raid by Israeli commandos on a Gaza-bound aid ship.

The breakthrough brokered by Obama ended a nearly three-year rift between Israel and Ankara -- both key regional US allies.

Kerry will head to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Monday and Tuesday for separate talks with Netanyahu and Abbas, Nuland said.

The stops have been added to a previously announced trip during which Kerry will also travel to London for a meeting of G8 foreign ministers before heading to Asia for the first time as America's new top diplomat.

On his first overseas trip since taking up the post on February 1, Kerry visited Egypt in early March for talks with President Mohamed Morsi.

Kerry has stressed he would like to find a path forward in the peace process which has bogged down for decades.

"I think the stage has been set for the possibilities that the parties can hopefully find a way to negotiations," Kerry said in Baghdad after meeting Netanyahu and Abbas.

Direct peace talks broke down just weeks after Obama made a failed bid to bring the sides together in September 2010 in a bitter row over Israel's settlement building.

Since then, the Palestinians have refused to return to the table without a settlement freeze while Israel has agreed to resume talks only if there are no preconditions.

Nuland refused to speculate Wednesday on whether Kerry would try to lay out any confidence-building measures to kickstart the talks in his next round of talks.

But Abbas said Wednesday that the freeing of prisoners held by Israel was a "priority" for the leadership in the West Bank.

"We cannot be silent about their staying behind bars... (we) have demanded the freeing of all prisoners, especially those arrested before the Oslo accords, and sick, child and women prisoners," he told his Fatah party.

Clashes broke out in the West Bank earlier in the day between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians protesting the death of a Palestinian prisoner serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail.

A 16-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli soldiers and two others were wounded in the unrest.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130403/kerry-returning-middle-east-peace-quest-beckons