WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Turkey and Israel this weekend to build on the two nations' efforts to repair ties and look for a possible way to restart long-stalled Mideast peace talks, U.S. and Turkish officials said Wednesday.
Kerry had planned to leave Monday for meetings in London and then South Korea, China and Japan. But he moved up his departure to Saturday to solidify the rapprochement that President Barack Obama brokered between Turkey and Israel during his visit to the region two weeks ago, the officials said.
Kerry also will discuss regional concerns such as Syria's civil war and the frozen Middle East peace process, making his third trip to the Jewish state in the last two weeks, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the trip had not been announced.
The succession of visits, which evokes the U.S. shuttle diplomacy to the region of times past, represents the latest American attempt to end a four-and-a-half year stalemate between the two sides, during which talks have hardly taken place at all. Kerry will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the latter possibly in neighboring Jordan.
Hoping to prod negotiators back to the table, U.S. officials said the Obama administration is exploring security guarantees for the Jordan Valley, a section of the West Bank that stretches along the border with Jordan.
Israel has long demanded the guarantees as part of any treaty establishing an independent Palestine, though the issue has been overshadowed by more sensitive debates over the final boundary line between the two states and the final status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capitals.
Although Palestinians have a measure of self-rule in other areas, the Jordan Valley is part of the 60 percent of the West Bank still under full Israeli control nearly two decades after interim peace accords granted the Palestinians autonomy elsewhere. The Israeli-controlled section includes military bases, nature reserves and Jewish settlements.
In previous negotiations, the Jewish state has demanded a residual force in the valley to ensure border security. It fears that an independent Palestine without a sufficient international or Israeli presence could lead to a buildup of military equipment and extremists along whatever becomes the final boundary with Israel — and lead to more conflict.
One idea floated in the past included joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols of the mostly desert area home to some 60,000 Palestinians.
The strategy during Kerry's visit, according to U.S. officials, is to leverage movement by Abbas on security guarantees into possible concessions from Netanyahu on the contentious issue of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and which the Palestinians hope to include in their future state.
But it's unclear what kind of reception such a proposal would get from the Palestinians, who've long demanded a complete freeze in Israeli settlements for negotiations to begin anew.
The last significant peace negotiations occurred when President George W. Bush brought leaders to Annapolis, Md., with the goal of a treaty by the end of 2008. After a two-year hiatus, talks begun under the Obama administration's guidance in 2010 quickly fizzled out.
The Palestinians want a halt in settlement construction and Israel's pre-1967 border as the baseline for their state. Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 boundaries and says talks should resume without preconditions.
The Palestinians also are hoping Israel frees roughly 120 prisoners it has held since before the interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Abbas has said he would meet with Netanyahu if there is a prisoner release, although he would not resume formal negotiations.
"The key to success for the efforts to re-launch the peace process is Israel's implementation of its commitments, especially stopping settlement activities, releasing prisoners and accepting the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
Kerry heads to the Middle East at a precarious time. Overnight Wednesday, Israel and Palestinian militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip engaged in the heaviest fighting since a cease-fire was declared last November, with militants firing several rockets into southern Israel and the Jewish state responding with its first airstrike in Gaza since the fighting subsided. No injuries were reported on either side.
The West Bank, meanwhile, has experienced anti-Israel protests over the past two days following the death of a 64-year-old Palestinian prisoner from throat cancer. The Palestinians blame Israel for the death, saying the man did not receive proper medical treatment. Although no one claimed responsibility for the Gaza rocket fire, the attack may have been connected to the prisoner's death.
Kerry may have an easier time cementing the diplomatic progress between Turkey and Israel.
The two countries were once strong allies, but their relations spiraled downward after Israel's 2010 raid on a Turkish flotilla bound for Gaza. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American died.
Last month, Obama arranged a call from Netanyahu to Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which Netanyahu apologized for the botched raid.
Turkey had demanded an apology as a condition for restoring ties. Netanyahu had until then refused to apologize, saying Israeli soldiers acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists.
But Erdogan has held up full normalization of ties until a compensation agreement is worked out and there is a significant loosening of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.