Kerry Presses Mideast Peace Bid

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry launched a second day of talks on Friday aimed at reviving moribund Middle East peace negotiations, sounding out Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas after talks in Jerusalem that went on into the night.

Kerry, who is trying to break a protracted deadlock in the negotiations, huddled in a Jerusalem hotel until nearly 1:30 am (2230 GMT) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hear his views on the way forward.

After the four-hour meeting, Kerry's motorcade made a nearly two-hour drive through the occupied West Bank to return to Jordanian capital, where he was to have lunch with Abbas.

Aides said that further shuttle diplomacy between the two sides was possible over the next two days.

Officials were tight-lipped about Kerry's meeting with Netanyahu, held over a dinner of red tuna and salmon ceviche at a hotel suite named after Israel's slain peacemaking prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Kerry "reiterated his strong and sustained commitment to working with all parties to achieve two states, living side-by-side with peace and security," a US official said on condition of anonymity, calling the talks "productive".

Kerry has made Middle East peace a signature priority. Since the veteran senator and former presidential candidate became the top US diplomat in February, he has visited the region five times.

U.S. officials have played down hopes of a breakthrough but Kerry has said he wants progress before the U.N. General Assembly in September, when Abbas could rally international opinion against Israel if he sees no movement.

The immediate task is not a settlement to one of the world's most intractable disputes but a much more modest goal -- resuming direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a gap of nearly three years.

After the quick failure of the last round, the Palestinian Authority wants guarantees that Israel will freeze construction of settlements on occupied land and commit to the principle of a peace deal based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel has retorted that it is ready to negotiate but will not accept "preconditions". Just a day before Kerry's visit, an Israeli committee gave final approval of 69 new settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

While the United States was low key in its reaction, Palestinian senior negotiator Hanan Ashrawi called the construction approval an Israeli repudiation of Kerry's peace initiative.

"And then they blame the Palestinians for not coming to the negotiating table," she told AFP.

U.S. officials say they want to build a solid foundation for the peace talks so that any renewed negotiations are not just symbolic but have a real chance of moving towards a lasting deal.

Some ideas floated include a release from Israel of Palestinian prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords, a gesture that could give Abbas more political room to negotiate.

Another possibility would be an informal agreement for Israel not to announce new settlements without explicitly declaring a freeze -- a step that would go down badly in Netanyahu's right-leaning government.

Netanyahu already had tense relations with President Barack Obama in the U.S. leader's first term over pressure to make peace. The Israeli premier emerged from January elections with coalition partners even more scornful of a peace deal.

Trade and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, recently described the Palestinian issue as "shrapnel in the buttocks" -- a problem that Israel simply had to keep suffering through.

An opinion poll published by the Israel Hayom newspaper on Friday found that, while most Israeli Jews supported a resumption of negotiations, there was scepticism about whether they would achieve anything.

The poll found that nearly 70 percent of respondents were against confidence-building "gestures" towards the Palestinians, such as releasing prisoners and easing movement for Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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