TEL AVIV — Secretary of State John Kerry wound up his most intensive push yet for a revival of Middle East peace talks Sunday without achieving a breakthrough, but he said that his four days of marathon meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders had yielded “real progress” and that a resumption of substantive negotiations could be “within reach.”
Kerry said he would return to the region soon.
“We started out with very wide gaps and we have narrowed those considerably,” Kerry told reporters at Ben Gurion International Airport before flying to Asia. “We have made real progress on this trip and I believe that with a little more work the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach.”
“I am absolutely confident that we are on the right track and that all of the parties are working in very good faith,” he added.
Kerry’s comments came after a weekend of shuttle diplomacy. He canceled a scheduled stop in the United Arab Emirates to press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to return to the negotiating table after years of stalemate.
He met three times with each leader and their top aides, including a six-hour session in Jerusalem that ended at 3:30 a.m. Sunday. Later, he drove to the West Bank for a two-hour talk with Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, described the meeting as “positive and profound,” but, he added, “there has been no breakthrough so far and there is still a gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions.”
Netanyahu had earlier told his Cabinet, “Israel is prepared to enter negotiations without delay, without preconditions.”
“There are things that we will stand on with strength in these discussions, the first of which is security,” the prime minister said. “We will not compromise security and there will not be any agreement that will endanger the security of citizens of Israel.”
The sticking points for bringing the parties back to the table are familiar: Abbas is insisting on a freeze of the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the release of some 120 Palestinians who have been in Israeli prisons for more than 20 years and the use of the pre-1967 borders as the basis of negotiations.
Israeli newspapers reported Sunday that Netanyahu had expressed a willingness to release prisoners but only in stages, and to freeze settlement construction, but only outside of three large blocs he says must remain part of Israel.
There are also indications that both sides might accept an American statement on the 1967 borders.