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Kerry 'closer' in Mideast talks push

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that six visits in as many months were bearing fruit in narrowing gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on resuming peace talks.

Kerry met in neighbouring Jordan with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas into the early hours before fresh talks on Wednesday that were joined by other Arab delegates.

The US envoy, who has made the resumption of Middle East peace talks after a three-year break a priority, even at the expense of raising eyebrows among US Asian allies, said the goal was getting nearer.

"Through hard and deliberate work, we have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly," Kerry told a press conference.

"We continue to get closer and I continue to be hopeful that the two sides will come to sit at the same table," he added.

Kerry acknowledged that differences remained between the two sides, despite his dogged shuttle diplomacy which saw him hold hours of talks with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his last visit last month.

"There is still some language that needs to be worked out," he said.

"I would caution everybody to resist the temptation to speculate.

"The easiest bet has always been on predicting impasse."

The Palestinians insist that they will not return to the negotiating table until Israel agrees to accept as a baseline the lines that existed before the 1967 Middle East war, when it occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

They say that Israel needs to freeze all settlement construction in the occupied lands, including in east Jerusalem, which it annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel says such calls are "preconditions" that it will not accept, although the Palestinians say they flow from international law and prior peace talks.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and Gulf Arab envoys, who were also in the Jordanian capital, gave strong backing to Kerry's peace push.

"The Arab delegates believe Kerry's ideas... constitute a good ground and suitable environment for restarting the negotiations," a statement said.

"The delegates... insisted that any future deal must be based on a two-state solution and through establishing an independent Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders with a limited exchange of lands in the same value and size."

The new, more right-leaning, ruling coalition formed by the Israeli premier earlier this year has refused to countenance any return to the 1967 lines.

Kerry and Abbas met into the early hours of Wednesday, huddling for some five hours after the iftar feast that marks the end of the daytime fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been broken off for three years over persistent Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied territories, despite mounting international reaction, particularly from the European Union.

A Palestinian official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP things were moving and Kerry was "determined" to announce a resumption of talks before he leaves the region at the end of the week.

"There has been progress in meetings with Kerry after he presented his initiative to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas," the high-ranking official said.

"The US secretary of state is determined to announce, before he leaves on Friday, a restart of negotiations," he added.

But State Department officials have remained tight-lipped on the substance of the talks in line with what Kerry has dubbed his "quiet strategy".

Kerry's visit comes amid Palestinian satisfaction, but Israeli anger, over new European Union guidelines barring the 28-member bloc from funding projects in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Israeli officials said the EU move could prove a stumbling block to Kerry's efforts, charging that it would encourage Palestinians to insist there could no return to talks without Israeli agreement to the 1967 lines as their basis.

And indeed there are no immediate plans for Kerry to visit Israel and meet Netanyahu, unlike previous trips when he has shuttled back and forth between Amman and Jerusalem.

In comments to the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag released on Wednesday, Netanyahu said the EU policy marked an "attempt to forcibly determine Israel's borders through economic pressure instead of through negotiations".

He said such a move was wrong, adding that "it hardens the Palestinian position and leads Israel to lose faith in Europe's neutrality".

jkb-akh/kir

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130717/kerry-closer-mideast-talks-push