US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to maintain optimism that Israeli and Palestinian leaders could strike a long-elusive peace deal, even as he battled to keep both sides at the negotiating table Wednesday.
Kerry met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem after talking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. He was due to meet with Abbas again on Thursday in Amman, Jordan.
Both sides warned of growing tensions during the separate meetings, which were held in secret locations.
"As in any negotiation there will be moments of up and moments of down," Kerry said.
While a peace deal was not “mission impossible,” it would require “real compromises and hard decisions” by both sides, he added.
"We have six months ahead of us on the timetable we have set for ourselves and I am confident we have the ability to make progress," said Kerry, who is on his fifth solo trip to the region since taking office earlier this year.
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The US-brokered peace talks began three months ago and are supposed to produce an agreement by April.
Both sides blamed each other over the failure to make headway on core issues.
"I am concerned about the progress because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace," Netanyahu said during a joint news conference with Kerry.
The Palestinians, for their part, are angry at the ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, which they say is illegal and poses a major obstacle to peace.
Kerry is seeking a deal based on a “two-state solution” with an Israeli and Palestinian state existing side by side.
While in Bethlehem, Kerry said, "Let me emphasize at this point the position of the United States of America on the settlements is that we consider them... to be illegitimate." He added that it would be best to "limit" settlements as much as possible.
Kerry's trip coincided with former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman being acquitted of charges in a corruption trial. If reinstated as foreign minister, right-wing Leiberman might prove to be an obstacle to the peace talks. Late last month, Leiberman said Abbas was not a "partner in peace" and there was "no point in currently seeking a permanent settlement."
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