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Kerry shuttle presses Mideast peace bid

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

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, met Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem before and after a visit to Amman for lunch with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

A State Department official said that Kerry's two-and-a-half hour meeting with Abbas was "very constructive... (and) focused on the importance of moving the peace process forward".

After the Friday lunch Kerry returned by helicopter to Jerusalem -- where he earlier had what he described as "good long" talks with Netanyahu that ended at 1:30 am (2230 GMT Thursday) -- before another meeting with him in a hotel.

At the start of that three-hour session, their second in less than 24 hours, the two men shook hands and Kerry joked "so soon".

Kerry will make one more round on Saturday, heading back to Amman to see Abbas again before returning to Jerusalem for the third time in as many days, an official said.

Kerry also met Friday with Israel's nearly 90-year-old president, Shimon Peres, who praised the US secretary of state's dedication to the peace process.

"All of us admire your investment in creating really the right environment," said Peres.

"It is difficult, there are many problems.

"But as far as I'm concerned I can see how (among) people, there is a clear majority for the peace process, a two-state solution, and a great expectation that you will do it and that you can do it."

US officials gave away little about Kerry's talks with Netanyahu, but the fast pace of talks fuelled speculation that he was making headway.

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 the 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 Israel will freeze construction of settlements on occupied land and commit to the principle of a peace deal based on the borders before the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel has retorted 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 a repudiation of Kerry's initiative.

US officials say they want to build a solid foundation for the talks so any renewed negotiations 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.

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.

Palestinian divisions are also an obstacle.

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.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130628/kerry-shuttle-presses-mideast-peace-bid-4