Kerry hits snags in bringing Israelis, Palestinians to table for peace talks
AMMAN — Secretary of State John Kerry's drive to revive Middle East peace talks hit familiar warning signals on Thursday as Israel's prime minister stressed security needs and a Palestinian negotiator denounced Israeli settlement building.
Kerry, on his fifth visit to the region, met Jordan's King Abdullah for talks focused on both the peace process and the Syrian civil war, which has driven more than 500,000 refugees into Jordan.
He later met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and was to return to Amman for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday.
Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state remains a main stumbling block to the resumption of peace talks that collapsed over the issue in 2010.
Kerry's arrival in Amman on Wednesday coincided with news that Israel had approved 69 new housing units in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, while building continues elsewhere.
“Obviously, steps like this are unhelpful, but we remain hopeful that both parties will recognize the opportunity and the necessity to go back to the table,” a State Department official said.
Abbas has long demanded settlement activity stop before peace talks resume, despite U.S. and Israeli calls for negotiations without preconditions.
“Settlement activity in and around occupied East Jerusalem is one of the main reasons why the two-state solution is disappearing, as without East Jerusalem there will be no Palestinian state,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Netanyahu, professing his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which he says must be demilitarized, has quietly frozen most housing starts in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But in a speech on Thursday, he appeared to put the United States on notice that he would stick to his security demands even at the risk of failed peace efforts, should they resume.
The prime minister said Israelis “do not want a bi-national state” — a reference to the possibility of Palestinians eventually vying for equal standing were Israel to merge with the West Bank. But he said Israelis understood that security is a “fundamental condition for our existence.”
Kerry has revealed few details of his strategy to bring the sides together.
But he has said he wants to show progress before September, when the U.N. General Assembly, which has granted de facto recognition to a Palestinian state, resumes its debate over the Middle East.