US Secretary of State John Kerry headed Thursday to Jerusalem in 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 will have dinner with Netanyahu and then drive back to Amman for lunch Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, with the potential for further shuttling if he sees an opening.
Kerry, who first consulted with Jordan's King Abdullah II, is seeking ways to break a three-year stalemate and restart direct negotiations that would ultimately lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Netanyahu set the tone for the meeting by saying 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 anniversary of the death 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 as 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 the 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 he has voiced hope for progress before the annual UN General Assembly in September, where Abbas could rally against Israel if he feels the diplomatic track is hopeless.
"It is urgent because time is the enemy of a peace process," Kerry said Wednesday in Kuwait. "The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don't want things to happen."
Kerry, who knows key Middle Eastern players from his decades as a senator, has also tasked his advisers with coming up with an economic development plan to entice the Palestinians and Israelis to seek a peace settlement.
A US official said Kerry also spoke to Jordan's King Abdullah about stepping up assistance to the opposition in neighbouring Syria.
Kerry earlier spoke about coordinating efforts during stops in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Sunni monarchies that have given assistance to rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.