Kerry Tries To Get Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Back On Track

Secretary of State John Kerry spends Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders just after the peace negotiations he set in motion hit their lowest point yet. The announcement of more Israeli settlements led the Palestinian team to nearly quit over the weekend, while settlers applauded the move. Kerry plans to speak very little while here, keeping in line with his mum's-the-word approach even as speculation of a backdoor U.S. plan rages in Israeli media.

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The peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials appear to have hit their roughest patch since the process restarted last summer. Secretary of State John Kerry spent today in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

As NPR's Emily Harris reports, Kerry met with leaders from both sides in an attempt to keep the talks on track.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Before sitting down to his first session with Kerry today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the negotiations are not moving forward as he'd like. He blamed the Palestinians.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I'm concerned about their progress because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitements, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid and run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace.

HARRIS: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made no public comments after his meeting with Kerry, but the secretary of state defended him, saying Abbas is 100 percent committed to negotiating with Israel.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: I'm convinced that he wants to find peace and that he understands it will require compromise by all the parties.

HARRIS: Both sides already made compromises just to get back to the bargaining table. Abbas agreed to put on hold pursuing international channels for recognition as a state. Netanyahu agreed to free more than 100 Palestinian prisoners in four groups over the planned nine months of talks.

But one of the most sensitive issues on both sides was left to fester as negotiations got underway: building homes for Jewish families in the occupied West Bank, land that Palestinians want for their future state.

IBRAHIM MATAR: If this is going to be the home for the Palestinians, then they should stop settlement in these areas.

HARRIS: Ibrahim Matar, head of a Palestinian Christian organization, reflects a common belief among Palestinians that more Israeli homes in the West Bank will mean a smaller Palestinian state, or perhaps none. Israel recently announced plans to build some 3,000 new homes, mostly around East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope will be their capital.

MATAR: How can you have two states when Israel is everywhere?

HARRIS: But Israel is everywhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, argues Elie Pieprz, director of external affairs for the Yesha Council, a settlers umbrella group.

ELIE PIEPRZ: It's helping to establish that a Jewish person living in a settlement is not a hindrance to peace. And I think that is the very strong message that the Israeli government is saying. On the one hand, we want peace. On the other hand, having Jewish people live in houses in Judea and Samaria is not an obstacle to that.

HARRIS: Judea and Samaria are the Biblical Jewish names for much of the West Bank. Israeli officials have suggested in recent days that Palestinian officials accepted more settlements as part of restarting talks. Secretary Kerry today said that is not the case.

KERRY: Let me emphasize at this point that the position of the United States of America on the settlements is that we consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate. And I want to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree as a matter of going back to the talks that they somehow condone or accept the settlements.

HARRIS: Progress toward a peace deal could potentially be affected by things happening outside the negotiation room. Two such events happened today: The former Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was cleared of corruption charges and is likely to return to the Israeli government. He is a longtime critic of the peace process.

Meanwhile, the widow of Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader who died in 2004, announced that tests from a Swiss laboratory showed her husband was poisoned. Palestinian officials are not commenting until they have reviewed all the evidence.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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