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US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday opened his latest bid to revive Middle East talks as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would insist on security in a peace deal.
In his fifth visit in as many months, Kerry headed to lunch with Jordan's King Abdullah II and will have dinner in Jerusalem with Netanyahu. He returns to Amman for lunch Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
With Kerry seeking to coax the two sides to end a three-year hiatus in direct negotiations, Netanyahu said that security was "a basic condition" for peace.
"Peace rests on security. It is not based on goodwill or legitimacy as some think. It is based, first and foremost, on our ability to defend ourselves," Netanyahu told a ceremony marking the death anniversary of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism.
The remarks come after the Haaretz newspaper quoted an anonymous "senior cabinet member" from Netanyahu's Likud party saying the premier would be ready to give up almost all of the West Bank if Israel's security needs were met.
Netanyahu had tense relations with President Barack Obama during the US leader's first term over the peace process. But an Israeli minister said Netanyahu increasingly saw a strategic interest for resuming peace talks.
"Netanyahu knows there will be a painful evacuation of a number of settlements that are not in the settlement blocs, and that there will be a land swap," Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri told army radio.
"Netanyahu is much more ready than in the past, whether it's for ideological or practical reasons, for an immediate return to the negotiating table," said Peri, who belongs to the centrist Yesh Atid party.
But Netanyahu emerged from January elections with an even more right-leaning cabinet.
Just one day before Kerry's arrival, an Israeli planning committee granted final approval for the construction of 69 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have insisted they can only return to negotiations if Israel freezes settlements and agrees the talks will be based on the principle of withdrawing from territories it conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"Israel is sending message after message to Kerry that settlement is their response to any (peace) initiative," senior Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi told AFP.
"And then they blame the Palestinians for not coming to the negotiating table," she said.
Ashrawi also faulted the United States, saying Israel's main international ally "is playing blind and deaf about Israel's actions and its declarations".
The United States gave a low-key reaction to latest construction ahead of Kerry's visit, with no public repudiation of the move.
"Obviously steps like this are unhelpful, but we remain hopeful that both parties will recognise the opportunity and the necessity to go back to the table," a senior official travelling with Kerry said on condition of anonymity.
Kerry has pledged to show patience in solving one of the world's most intractable disputes but has warned the prolonged stalemate is unsustainable.
"Long before September, we need to be showing some kind of progress in some way, because I don't think we have the luxury of that kind of time," Kerry said Wednesday during a visit to Kuwait.
"It is urgent because time is the enemy of a peace process," Kerry said. "The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don't want things to happen."
Kerry was referring to the annual UN General Assembly in September, where Abbas could rally international opinion against Israel if the Palestinian leader feels attempts at diplomacy have gone nowhere.
But Kerry refused to identify any deadline for progress, saying such arbitrary targets were counterproductive.
Kerry, a veteran US senator, has vowed to press on and has tasked his advisers with coming up with an economic development plan which he hopes can entice the Palestinians and Israelis to seek a peace settlement.
Aaron David Miller, who spent 25 years as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to US secretaries of state, said he has "never seen one as self-assured" as Kerry on the peace process.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Miller called Kerry "the Lone Ranger of the Middle East".