TEL AVIV, Israel — Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "demonstrate leadership" in the coming days in order to find a way back to direct peace negotiations.
"We are reaching a time when leaders need to make hard decisions," he said at a news conference at Ben Gurion International Airport after wrapping up a day and a half of meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials on both sides. Kerry was on his way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a meeting of the African Union.
But after eight weeks of intense effort to revitalize the long-stalled peace process, and four trips to the region, it was clear there was still no breakthrough.
Kerry said he would continue his close engagement with both parties "to try to find a framework by which negotiations can begin," adding, "I am convinced that the people on both sides of this conflict want it to end, but there are obviously different views about how to get there or who takes the first step."
Kerry refused to discuss specific dates or deadlines, though Palestinian officials have mentioned June 7 as the end of the grace period during which they say they were asked to hold off on seeking membership in international forums to gain further recognition of their claim to statehood.
During the same period, the Israeli government has quietly refrained from issuing bids for construction in West Bank settlements or from announcing major new building projects.
On Friday, Kerry appealed to both parties to proceed with restraint.
"Each side needs to work to build trust," he said, "and each needs to refrain from any provocative rhetoric or actions that take us backwards."
But as time passes that may get harder, given some of the political pressures that Netanyahu and Abbas face internally.
The settlement issue is a perennial sticking point, with the Palestinians long having refused to return to talks as building goes on.
Despite government restraint, Israeli authorities did approve plans this month for 296 new homes in a West Bank settlement. They were part of an agreement reached in 2012 with the settlers, after 30 families were evacuated by court order from five buildings that had been illegally constructed on private Palestinian land. The Israeli government also submitted a response to a Supreme Court petition by Peace Now, an anti-settlement advocacy group, in which the government declared its intention to legalize retroactively four settler outposts that were built without permission.
Kerry raised the issue of the four outposts by phone with Netanyahu, said an Israeli official, who argued that the timing was dictated by the courts.
The Obama administration has been careful not to make public demands for a freeze in settlement construction, a policy that backfired last time around. Kerry said that the United States was opposed to settlement construction and the legalization of outposts, but he said that the goal was "to get to talks without preconditions," and that if an agreement on borders was eventually reached, the settlement issue would resolve itself.
The Israeli official, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing diplomacy, welcomed Kerry's call for direct talks without preconditions, which reflects Israel's own position. On the Israeli side, he said, there has been no talk of deadlines.
But continued settlement activity could serve to inflame the situation and elicit a reaction from the Palestinians.
"We have to show that we are serious, both in engaging with Kerry and in showing that we have our own tools," a Palestinian official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol.
The official suggested that later in June, if there has still been no progress, the Palestinians could apply to join some international agencies and conventions that would not be considered contentious, such as one dealing with the rights of the child.
Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank and a former Palestinian Authority spokesman, said "It would be difficult to imagine any progress without change in Israel's settlement policy."
"People on our side look at settlement activity as a main indicator of the state of the peace process," he said, adding that settlement building was "just incompatible" with the two state solution.
However, there is also a feeling on the Palestinian side that the June 7 deadline can be elastic.
"I don't think the Americans will announce failure and leave a sense of vacuum," Khatib said. "I think they will find a way of getting an extension."
The Israeli official said that setting deadlines was a familiar tactic of Palestinian brinkmanship.
The Palestinian official also intimated that there would likely be some flexibility.
"Things on our side are never black and white," he said. "I am sure that no decision has been taken yet."
Regarding Iran, Kerry was extremely critical of the decision by its Guardian Council to narrow the field of candidates for the June election to exclude moderates and women "based solely on who represents the regime's interests." He said that the election would hardly be one that was free and fair and that it was not likely to represent the desire of the Iranian people for change.