Kerry ends Mideast trip without framework deal

AFP , Monday 6 Jan 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry in Saudi Arabia (File Photo: AP)

After four days of intense diplomacy, US Secretary of State John Kerry was heading home Monday, insisting progress has been made despite failing to agree a framework to guide Israeli-Palestinian talks.

During his tour, Kerry spent hours locked in separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, as well as making a surprise day trip to key Arab allies, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Monday morning, the top US diplomat was briefing Tony Blair, the Middle East special envoy for the Quartet of regional peacemakers, at his Jerusalem hotel as he wrapped up his 10th trip to the region as secretary of state.

Earlier, Kerry met with Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

With the US remaining tight-lipped about the details, little news has filtered out about Kerry's proposals to bridge the huge gaps between the two sides as they seek to draw up the contours of two states living side-by-side.

But talks appear to have focused on security in the Jordan Valley, on the border between the West Bank and Jordan, as well as the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their future capital.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be key to any deal.

Not only does Jordan border the occupied West Bank, it also has a historic role in the guardianship of Muslim sites in Israeli-annexed Arab east Jerusalem which is recognised under their 1994 peace treaty,.

Saudi Arabia authored a 2002 peace plan which is the basis of Arab aspirations for any settlements.

Kerry emerged from talks at the secluded desert residence of Saudi King Abdullah late Sunday to say he had won the support of the influential Arab leader.

"His Majesty was not just encouraging, but supported our efforts and hopes that we can be successful in the days ahead and believes that this is important for the region and that there are great benefits that will come to everybody if we're able to be successful," Kerry said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal agreed it had been "an excellent meeting."

The top US diplomat, who has made a Middle East peace deal a personal quest since taking office in February, is due to meet this week with top members of the Arab League to brief them on his discussions in Israel and the West Bank.

This trip has been clouded by bitter recriminations from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, accusing each other of not being serious partners in the search for peace.

On Sunday, Netanyahu renewed allegations that Palestinians were "continuing their campaign of inciting hatred."

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have reportedly told Kerry they will refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and remain steadfast in their opposition to stationing any Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley to ensure Israel's security in a new Palestinian state.

Kerry was leaving Monday without having agreed a framework to guide the negotiations in the crunch months ahead, but US officials had already warned there would be no breakthrough on this trip.

Undaunted, Kerry has vowed his team, led by special envoy Martin Indyk, will carry on working here this week, and said he will return soon to Jerusalem, as an April deadline for an accord looms.

Israeli media said that Kerry would be returning to the region next week.

He pledged any accord will be "fair and balanced," but acknowledged on Sunday his efforts might still fail, likening the negotiations to completing a complex puzzle.

"The path is becoming clearer, the puzzle is becoming more defined, and it is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are and what the options are with respect to those choices," he said.

"But I cannot tell you when particularly the last pieces may decide to fall into place or may fall on the floor and leave the puzzle unfinished. That's exactly what makes this such a challenge, and also so interesting at the same time."

Kerry coaxed the two sides back to the negotiating table in July after a three-year freeze, and they have agreed to keep talking for nine months.

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