Kerry shuttle presses Mideast peace bid

US Secretary of State John Kerry shuttled between Jerusalem and Amman on Friday as he tried to revive moribund Middle East peace negotiations, holding lengthy separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Kerry, who is trying to break a protracted deadlock in the negotiations, met Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in two separate meetings before and after a visit to Amman for lunch with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

"Secretary Kerry and president Abbas held a two and a half-hour lunch meeting" at the Palestinian ambassador's residence in the Jordanian capital, a state department official told AFP.

The official described it as "very constructive... (and) focused on the importance of moving the peace process forward".

The top US diplomat then flew by helicopter back to Jerusalem -- where had been in what he described as a "good long" four-hour meeting with Netanyahu that ended at 1:30 am (2230 GMT Thursday) -- before beginning another afternoon meeting with him at Kerry's hotel.

The two men shook hands and Kerry joked "so soon," after entering a suite with Middle Eastern snacks laid out on a small table, an AFP correspondent said.

Kerry was set to meet Shimon Peres at his residence in Jerusalem at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT), and to dine with the nearly 90-year-old Israeli president.

Officials were tight-lipped about Kerry's late-night talks with Netanyahu, held over dinner at a hotel suite named after slain peacemaking premier Yitzhak Rabin.

Kerry "reiterated his strong and sustained commitment to working with all parties to achieve two states, living side by side with peace and security," a US official said on condition of anonymity, calling the talks "productive".

Kerry has made Middle East peace a signature priority, visiting the region five times since February.

US officials have played down hopes of a breakthrough, but Kerry has said he wants progress before the UN General Assembly in September, when Abbas could rally international opinion against Israel if he sees no movement.

The immediate task is not a settlement to one of the world's most intractable disputes but the more modest goal of resuming direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a gap of nearly three years.

After the quick failure of the last round, the Palestinians want guarantees that Israel will freeze construction of settlements on occupied land and commit to the principle of a peace deal based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel has retorted that it is ready to negotiate but will not accept "preconditions".

Just a day before Kerry's visit, an Israeli committee gave final approval of 69 new settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

While the United States was low-key in its reaction, Palestinian senior negotiator Hanan Ashrawi called the move an Israeli repudiation of Kerry's peace initiative.

US officials say they want to build a solid foundation for the peace talks so that any renewed negotiations are not just symbolic but have a real chance of moving towards a lasting deal.

Ideas floated include Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords, a gesture that could give Abbas more political room to negotiate.

Another possibility would be an informal agreement for Israel not to announce new settlements, without explicitly declaring a freeze -- a step that would go down badly in Netanyahu's right-leaning government.

Netanyahu emerged from January elections with coalition partners who openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, undermining hopes for the much-vaunted two-state solution.

Economics 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.

Former intelligence minister Dan Meridor believed a resumption of talks was "feasible", but was unsure they would achieve anything.

"I believe there will be some formula by which it will resume... the question is whether it will go (anywhere) from there," he told journalists ahead of Kerry's visit.

Internal Palestinian divisions also present an obstacle to talks.

Gaza's Hamas premier Ismail Haniya on Friday warned Abbas against falling into the "trap of negotiations," calling first for Palestinian "unity".

Hamas, which governs Gaza, and Abbas's Fatah, which dominates the West Bank, have been at odds since Hamas's takeover of the Palestinian coastal enclave in 2007.