U.S., Israel raise hopes for Mideast peace restart

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The United States and Israel raised hopes Thursday for a restart of the Middle East peace process, despite little tangible progress so far from U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s 2-month-old effort to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

As they met in Jerusalem, Mr. Kerry praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the “seriousness” with which he is looking at ways to revitalize peace hopes. Mr. Kerry expressed optimism without outlining any concrete strategy for ending a stalemate between the two sides that has seen them hardly negotiate one-on-one at all during the past 4½ years.

“I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism, in some quarters there is cynicism, and there are reasons for it,” Mr. Kerry told reporters. “There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient — but detailed and tenacious — that we can lay on a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people and certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace.”

“That’s what we’re working towards,” said Mr. Kerry, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later Thursday in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu said his conversation with the top American diplomat would touch on mutual concerns about Iran and Syria.

“But above all,” he said, “what we want to do is restart the peace talks with the Palestinians.”

“It’s something I want, it’s something you want,” Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Kerry. “It’s something I hope the Palestinians want as well, and we ought to be successful for a simple reason: When there’s a will, we’ll find a way.”

The visit, Mr. Kerry’s fourth trip to the Jewish state since taking office as secretary of state in February, coincides with deepening pessimism from Palestinian officials about the new peace push. They are planning to resume their campaign of seeking membership in key international organizations as early as next month in a bid to put pressure on Israel into offering some concessions.

Without major U.S. pressure on Israel, the outlook seems bleak. The most immediate divide concerns the issue of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — lands that Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war and that the Palestinians hope to include in their state.

While Palestinians praised Mr. Kerry’s efforts, they said there has been little progress ahead of what they believe to be a June 7 deadline for action. They already are beginning work on a “day-after” strategy.

“We don’t have unrealistic expectations. We know the immensity of obstacles,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official. “If it doesn’t work, of course we have our own plans.”

The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it increasingly difficult to partition the land between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel also captured the Gaza Strip in 1967, though it withdrew from the territory in 2005.

The Palestinians have demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction and accept the pre-1967 frontiers as the baselines of a future border. While previous Israeli leaders have used the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks, Mr. Netanyahu says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he took a tough line against the settlements and prodded Israel into a partial construction freeze. But Israel refused to extend the freeze, and a short-lived round of negotiations in 2010 quickly collapsed. Mr. Obama similarly tried unsuccessfully to press Israel into accepting the 1967 lines as a base line for talks.

Fed up with the impasse and disillusioned with Mr. Obama, the Palestinians last fall won recognition from the U.N. General Assembly as a nonmember state, an upgraded diplomatic status that gives them access to key U.N. bodies. The U.S. was one of just eight countries that sided with Israel in opposing the bid.

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