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Kerry persists as Mideast talks flounder

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Secretary of State John Kerry, seeking to quell a dispute over Jewish settlements that threatens to poison peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, pressed the Israeli government on Wednesday to limit its approval of new construction.

Kerry’s efforts to steady the talks got off to a bumpy start, with the Palestinians seething over recent building announcements and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticizing Palestinian leaders for inciting trouble and evading tough decisions.

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The prime minister’s comments, which came days after the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, lamented the lack of progress, underscored the depth of the challenge facing Kerry as he tries to prevent the latest round of talks from slipping into a familiar cycle of recrimination.

Adding to the potential hurdles for diplomacy was the acquittal Wednesday on corruption charges of Israel’s former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose hard-line views and polarizing style could disrupt the talks.

Kerry, who thrust himself back into the talks to recapture momentum, instead found himself dealing with anger on both sides. Under pressure from Abbas, he declared that the Palestinians had not agreed to the continued building of settlements in the West Bank as a condition for resuming direct negotiations with the Israelis.

“That is not to say that they weren’t aware, or we weren’t aware, that there would be construction,” Kerry said here after meeting Abbas. “But that construction, importantly, in our judgment, would be much better off limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively.”

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu aired his dissatisfaction with the state of the talks even before the start of his meeting with Kerry.

“I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are necessary to make a genuine peace,” he said.

At the heart of the current tempest is whether the Palestinians accepted that Israel would announce new settlement construction as it released Palestinian prisoners.

Some analysts said that the public display of outrage by Palestinian leaders, including an offer of resignation last week by the chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was probably more about appeasing the Palestinian street than a reflection of what is happening inside the negotiating room. But that need to show steadfastness, on both sides, is a hint of the broader hurdles Kerry faces in bridging the significant gaps.

Standing in a sun-splashed square next to the Church of the Nativity, Kerry announced that the United States would contribute an additional $75 million in aid to a Palestinian Authority fund to build roads, hospitals, and schools in the West Bank, a program designed to create jobs and build Palestinian support for the peace process.

Anat N. Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the statements by Netanyahu and Abbas, as well as a series of negatives leaks, indicated the talks were at a nadir. But that, she said, could present Kerry with an opening.

“If I want to be optimistic, I would say that in the face of the crisis, maybe the administration will step in,” said Kurz, whose current research focuses on the conflict. “That would force the two sides to come up with something realistic.”

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