Kerry says progress made in peace talks
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that "real progress" has been made on Mideast talks but more work is needed.
"We have had very positive discussion, very important discussions, for the last few days. We agree we have made real progress, but we have a few things we need to work on," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry, who has been shuttling between meetings with leaders of both sides, spoke after a two-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
There is deep skepticism that Kerry can get the two sides to agree on a two-state solution. It's something that's eluded presidents and diplomats for years. But Kerry's three meetings with Abbas and a trio of sit-downs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since Thursday has heightened expectations the two sides can be persuaded to at least restart talks, which broke down in 2008.
The chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said there were no breakthroughs during Sunday's meeting.
He said there was "some progress in some issues," but other issues remain. He said members of Kerry's staff will remain in the region to continue mediation efforts. He would not elaborate.
Most of Kerry's meetings have lasted at least two hours and several of them were much longer. His initial dinner meeting Thursday night with Netanyahu was clocked at four, and the one Saturday night in a hotel suite with the Israeli prime minister and his advisers lasted more than six hours.
After the meeting broke up past 3 a.m. Sunday, Kerry took a pre-dawn stroll in Jerusalem with senior advisers. Kerry, the sleeves on his white shirt rolled up his arms, walked with a security escort to a park near the hotel, gesturing and talking with his top advisers on the Mideast peace process.
As dawn broke, there still were no signs that any agreement had been reached.
Netanyahu told his Cabinet in the morning that he is ready to begin talks with the Palestinians immediately, but he made no mention of yielding to Palestinian demands to halt settlement construction or release Palestinian prisoners.
Netanyahu said he will not compromise on Israel's security and if a deal is reached, he said he would seek approval in a national referendum. A referendum is not required, and critics have said it would add an additional obstacle to implanting a deal that relinquishes territory to the Palestinians.
"I held a third meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last night until the early morning, along with my colleagues on the negotiating team," Netanyahu said. "Israel is ready to begin negotiations without delay, without pre-conditions."
He said Israel was not putting up any impediments to starting permanent talks to reach a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians. But he added: "We will not compromise on security and there will be no agreement that will endanger Israelis' security."
After a sleepless night, Kerry left his hotel in Jerusalem in a convoy of SUVs and made the half-hour journey to the West Bank to meet Abbas.
The meeting at the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah began shortly after 11 a.m. with small talk about a 23-year-old male wedding singer from a Gaza refugee camp who recently won the Arab world's top TV contest. Mohammed Assaf was crowned "Arab Idol" last week and Abbas portrayed the singer's victory as an achievement for all Palestinians.
Street celebrations and fireworks erupted across the West Bank and Gaza after he was named the winner.
"I heard you watched television, you watched the show," Kerry said.
"All the time until he (the singer) succeeded," Abbas said.
Kerry, who chuckled cheerfully through the chat, said: "It was a lot of fun to watch. It was nice to see everybody feeling good, coming out, celebrating."
A reporter asked Kerry how the talks were progressing, but the secretary only waved, ending the photo-op and signaling the beginning of serious diplomacy.
In the past, Abbas has said he won't negotiate unless Israel stops building settlements on war-won lands or accepts its 1967 lines - before the capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in a Mideast war that year - as a starting point for border talks. The Palestinians claim all three areas for their future state.
Azzam al-Ahmad, an official with Abbas' Fatah movement who met with the Palestinian president Saturday night, was not optimistic.
He told the Voice of Palestine Sunday morning that no progress had been made in Kerry's efforts concerning the Palestinians demand that Israel freeze settlements in occupied areas, recognize the 1967 borders and release 103 Palestinian prisoners who have been held in Israeli prisons since before the so-called Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, a peace effort that established the Palestinian Authority.
The aging Palestinian inmates, some of them in poor health, have been incarcerated for some 20 to 30 years, and their freedom would mark a victory for Abbas. If Israel released the prisoners, some Palestinian officials say they think Abbas would be persuaded to go back to the negotiating table for at least several months.
"Kerry is doing his best and we appreciate these efforts, but so far he didn't bring anything from the Israelis on our demands of the settlements freeze, recognizing the '67 borders and releasing the pre-Oslo prisoners," al-Ahmad said. "President Abbas told Kerry he wants him to continue his efforts but we can't wait forever."