RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stepped up his drive to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, meeting with the Palestinian president Friday as he sought to close a deep divide between the two sides over a formula for resuming peace talks after nearly five years.
The talks came a day after the Palestinian leadership balked at dropping a main condition for talks with the Israelis. They demand a guarantee that negotiations on borders between a Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the cease-fire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Israel rejects preconditions on the talks, and the split casts a cloud of uncertainty over months of U.S. mediation efforts.
Kerry held more than 90 minutes of talks Friday morning with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Kerry also spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and officials from both sides, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Kerry then went by helicopter to the West Bank town of Ramallah and met for around an hour with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He then headed back to Amman.
"Mr. President, you should look happy," a cheerful-looking Kerry said to Abbas in front of reporters as they sat before the closed-door talks began.
Hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks, President Barack Obama asked Netanyahu to work with Kerry "to resume negotiations with Palestinians as soon as possible," according to a statement released by the White House late Thursday.
Previous Israeli governments twice negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines, but no peace accord was reached. Besides disagreeing over how much land to trade and where, the two sides hit logjams on other key issues, including dividing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Netanyahu has given lukewarm endorsement to the idea of a Palestinian state but has not delineated his vision of boundaries, while demanding that the Palestinian recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Palestinians reject that, concerned that it would undermine their claims that millions of refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their original homes, lost in the 1948-49 war surrounding Israel's creation. Israel has rejected that claim outright.
After their late-night meeting, the Palestinians did not bring up their often-repeated demand that Israel stop building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before talks could resume. One official said that if Israel accepts the 1967 lines as a basis, that would make most of the settlements illegitimate.
While Kerry has not publicized details of his plan, an Arab League decision Wednesday to endorse his proposal raised speculation that the Palestinians would agree. Abbas traditionally has sought the blessing of his Arab brethren before making any major diplomatic initiative.
Ahmed Majdalani, a Palestinian leader, said Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements.
He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men that Israel convicted of crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Israel has balked at freeing these prisoners in the past because many were convicted in deadly attacks.
Although the plan does not include a settlement freeze, it was not clear whether Israel would accept any reference to the 1967 lines.
Israeli Cabinet minister Yair Lapid said it was "too early to say" whether Kerry had found a formula for talks.
"Secretary Kerry has done a tremendous job in trying to put both sides together," he told The Associated Press. "Of course Israel is more than willing and has expressed its agreement to go back to the negotiation table, but apparently it's going to take a little more time."
While Israel has balked at Palestinian demands, the international community has largely rallied behind the Palestinian position on borders and Jewish settlements.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.