JERUSALEM - After four days of intense diplomacy, US Secretary of State John Kerry headed home Monday, insisting progress had been made despite failing to agree a framework to guide Israeli-Palestinian talks.
On his 10th visit to the region as US top diplomat, Kerry spent hours locked in separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
He also made a surprise day trip to key Arab allies, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
With the US remaining tight-lipped about the details, little news has filtered out about Kerry’s proposals to bridge the huge gaps between the two sides as they seek to draw up the contours of two states living side by side.
According to a report in Israeli daily Maariv, Kerry pressed Netanyahu to agree to a formula which would enable the return of some Palestinian refugees, who fled or were expelled from Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948.
Netanyahu refused, Maariv said. According to the newspaper, Israeli negotiators also wish to extend talks beyond their agreed April deadline to January 2015, in return for freezing some settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be key to any deal.
Jordan’s historic role in the guardianship of Muslim sites in Israeli-annexed Arab east Jerusalem is recognised under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Saudi Arabia authored a 2002 peace plan which is the basis of Arab aspirations for any deal.
Kerry emerged from talks at the secluded desert residence of Saudi King Abdullah late Sunday to say he had won the support of the influential Arab leader.
“His Majesty was not just encouraging, but supported our efforts and hopes that we can be successful in the days ahead and believes that this is important for the region and that there are great benefits that will come to everybody if we’re able to be successful,” Kerry said. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal agreed it had been “an excellent meeting.”
Kerry, who has made a Middle East peace deal a personal quest since taking office in February, is due to meet this week with top members of the Arab League to brief them on his discussions in Israel and the West Bank.
This trip was clouded by bitter recriminations from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, accusing each other of not being serious partners in the search for peace.
On Sunday, Netanyahu renewed allegations that Palestinians were “continuing their campaign of inciting hatred.”
The Palestinians, meanwhile, reportedly told Kerry they will refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and remain steadfast in their opposition to stationing any Israeli troops on the border between the West Bank and Jordan to ensure Israel’s security in a new Palestinian state.
Kerry left Monday without having agreed a framework to guide the negotiations in the crunch months ahead, but US officials had already warned there would be no breakthrough on this trip.
Undaunted, Kerry has vowed his team, led by special envoy Martin Indyk, will carry on working here this week, and said he will return soon. Israeli media said he could be back as early as next week.
Kerry pledged any accord will be “fair and balanced,” but acknowledged on Sunday his efforts might still fail, likening the negotiations to completing a complex puzzle.
“The path is becoming clearer, the puzzle is becoming more defined, and it is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are and what the options are with respect to those choices,” he said.
“But I cannot tell you when particularly the last pieces may decide to fall into place or may fall on the floor and leave the puzzle unfinished. That’s exactly what makes this such a challenge, and also so interesting at the same time.”