Kerry pursuing 'quiet' Mideast peace strategy

Jo Biddle
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US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) greets officials in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) greets officials shortly before placing a wreath from the United States at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem during Holocaust Memorial Day on April 8, 2013. Kerry on Monday said he was pursuing a "quiet strategy" for breaking the years-long impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, warning the process could not be rushed

Top US diplomat John Kerry on Monday said he was pursuing a "quiet strategy" for breaking the years-long impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, warning the process could not be rushed.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Shimon Peres, Kerry said he was "intensely focused" on advancing the peace process seen as "vital" to US and regional interests.

Kerry, who is US President Barack Obama's new pointman on the Middle East, is on a fresh mission aimed at coaxing Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations frozen since September 2010.

As he held talks in Israel, Arab nations met in Qatar to discuss ways to revive the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process and plans to send a mission to Washington at the end of April.

The secretary of state said he believed it "would be irresponsible ... not to explore thoroughly the possibilities for moving forward" as he seeks to overcome decades of mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians.

He refused to give specifics, speaking ahead of a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to his schedule at the last minute. The two leaders will also meet Tuesday for formal talks.

The leaders of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee held talks in Doha meanwhile attended by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and chaired by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.

"This meeting was to discuss the mission of the Arab delegation that will visit Washington on April 29," the organisation's secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, told reporters.

The 2002 Arab peace initiative offers diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for its complete withdrawal from all occupied territories and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.

Kerry arrived in Israel late Sunday, but in a break with tradition headed straight for Abbas's West Bank headquarters in Ramallah -- the third time the two men have met since Kerry began his tenure on February 1.

But Washington's top diplomat said he was under no illusion about the tough road ahead.

"I understand it is a complicated, well-trod path of disappointments and/or moments of hope followed by breach of agreement or process, and that mistrust is very high," Kerry said.

"I am convinced that we can break that down, but I'm not going to do it under guidelines or time limits," he said, adding: "This process should not be rushed."

Peres also spoke of a "new sense of optimism and hope" over the prospects of ending the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.

"Peace is possible," he said. "I believe that the gaps between us and our Palestinian neighbours can be bridged and I speak out of experience."

Speaking with Peres as his side, Kerry also sought to reassure the Jewish state over the Iranian nuclear threat, saying Washington was aware the clock was ticking.

Peres expressed his "full trust" in Washington's commitment to stopping Iran from going nuclear.

During Kerry's meeting with Abbas, they discussed economic development with several top aides, then held a private session at which Kerry insisted that the specifics be kept under wraps.

Abbas told Kerry the release of prisoners held by Israel was a "top priority" for resuming peace talks, his spokesman told AFP.

The Palestinian leader has repeatedly made clear there would be no return to negotiations without a settlement freeze, but he has also made it known he would suspend for two months all efforts to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state to give US-brokered efforts a chance.

Abbas also wants Netanyahu to present a map of the borders of a future Palestinian state before talks can resume.

Netanyahu has said he would not accept a return to the borders of before the 1967 Middle East war, and on Monday a high-ranking political official told Israel's Maariv newspaper that presenting a map was out of the question.

"It would be insane to present such a map," the official said, adding Israel would be "giving up our most important asset, without the Palestinians having committed themselves to anything."