John Kerry: Middle East Visit 'Constructive'

Tom Rayner, Middle East News Editor
John Kerry: Middle East Visit 'Constructive'

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said three days of talks aimed at trying to breathe life into the stalled Middle East peace process have been "very constructive".

Mr Kerry held meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an attempt to bring both parties back to the negotiating table.

Speaking at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as he left the region, he said he was confident there was a commitment to create the conditions where talks could be resumed, but was keen not to build expectations.

"Each of the leaders that I met with assured me that they will put their best effort into trying to move forward" but he added "doing it right is more important than doing it quickly."

"It's not going to be done and shouldn't be done in piecemeal public releases," he said. "It's best done quietly."

Mr Kerry also indicated that further efforts would be made to improve the economic situation in the Palestinian Territories, although he said it would be several weeks until further details are made public.

Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have been frozen for more than four years and there has been widespread scepticism about the potential for them to be revived in the near future.

Fundamental obstacles include the continued construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the disunity between Fatah and Hamas, which has left the Palestinian leadership divided and weakened.

Numerous diplomats from around the world including Britain have warned that continued settlement construction in the Palestinian Territories is destroying any possibility of creating a viable independent Palestinian state.

Standing alongside Mr Kerry at a news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was keen to see progress made but not at the expense of security.

"I am determined not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all.

"This has economic components. We welcome any initiative that you or any others will bring forward in this regard. But it also has a political component; political discussions that will address a myriad of issues. Foremost on our minds are the question of recognition and security. This is a real effort."

Mr Kerry's visit follows Barak Obama's first presidential visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories last month.

It is the Secretary of State's third visit to the region since taking up his post - leading some to speculate the US administration is preparing to give so-called "shuttle diplomacy" a push during Mr Obama's second-term.

However, the president's visit last month did little more than highlight the significant sticking points that remain before the moribund peace process can be restored.

During talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, it was made clear to Mr Obama that a settlement freeze was a pre-condition for a return to negotiations as well as the possible release of Palestinian prisoners.

A spokesman for Mr Abbas also told the AFP news agency that a clear commitment on future borders was a necessity.

"Any return to negotiations requires Netanyahu to agree on 1967 borders," said his political adviser Nimir Hammad of the lines which existed before the Six Day War when Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu has on several occasions said he would not accept a return to the 1967 borders.

The only commitment that appears to have been extracted by the US President on his visit last month was an agreement from the Palestinian leadership to suspend for a few months unilateral efforts to pursue full recognition as a state at the UN and International Criminal Courts to give efforts to re-start the peace process a chance.

Mr Kerry will now travel to London where he will meet with Syrian opposition figures.

Later this month, he will host talks in Washington with other Middle Eastern leaders from Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.