Kerry Cites Progress In Mideast Peace Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry is back in the Middle East, trying to spark some momentum in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. There's a sense of urgency on the trip, but the leaders on both sides are far from ready to sign an agreement.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is abroad on his 10th Mideast peacemaking visit. This morning in Jerusalem, he said Israelis and Palestinians shouldn't get bogged down in day-to-day obstacles, and instead move towards a peace agreement. There's a sense of urgency on this trip. But as Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem, the leaders on both sides are far from ready to sign an agreement and not making it easy for Secretary Kerry.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held marathon meetings with John Kerry over the past few days, but neither side voiced any optimism. Kerry, on the other hand, came out of his last session with the Palestinians sounding encouraged.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We're not there yet, but we are making progress. And we are beginning to flesh out the toughest hurdles yet to be overcome.

ESTRIN: Five months ago, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to sit down and talk peace. So far, neither side has reported any breakthroughs. But Kerry is still adamant that Israelis and Palestinians can finally resolve their conflict. And at the start of this visit, he struck a personal note from his days as a soldier in the Vietnam War, noting how far the U.S. and Vietnam have come.

KERRY: The transformation in our relationship is proof that as painful as the past can be, through hard work of diplomacy, history's adversaries can actually become partners for a new day and history's challenges can become opportunities for a new age.

Kerry said he came to propose a framework - how to solve the core issues of the Mideast conflict: the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements, Palestinian refugees, mutual recognition and conflicting claims to Jerusalem. He wants the two parties to agree to a vision before hammering out the details. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted Kerry by questioning whether Israel has a partner for peace in the first place.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I know that you're committed to peace, I know that I'm committed to peace, but unfortunately, given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders, there's growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace.

ESTRIN: During these talks Israel has released Palestinians convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis. But Netanyahu says the Palestinian leader has greeted the freed prisoners as heroes. Palestinians are calling on Israel to stop plans to announce new settlement homes in areas the Palestinians seek for their future state. Azzam Abu Baker, a Palestinian official with the ruling Fatah Party, says the gaps between the two sides are still large. And he said Kerry has yet to present the Palestinians with any formal framework proposal for a peace deal.

AZZAM ABU BAKER: (Through Translator) If Kerry feels the urgency to do something now, the Palestinian people do not have that same feeling. To prepare for that moment, he needs to deliver, he needs to bring something, so that the Palestinians feel now or never.

ESTRIN: Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli statesman who says he receives regular updates about the negotiations, says there are some issues Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agree on, like how to share water and keeping a Palestinian state demilitarized. But he says Netanyahu is unsure about adopting Kerry's bigger vision for peace.

YOSSI BEILIN: I think he himself is still deliberating on this option, trying to weigh up what is the price of saying no to the American proposal, and what is the price of saying yes to it?

ESTRIN: At the end of his last meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary Kerry said the leaders are not giving up. He said, despite criticism from their supporters, there's been enough progress in the negotiations to encourage the two leaders to keep talking. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

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