Palestinian leader optimistic about Kerry efforts

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president said Tuesday he is optimistic that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will succeed in restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a rare upbeat assessment about ongoing American mediation efforts.

Mahmoud Abbas’ comments came two days after Kerry ended his latest peace mission to the region without any breakthroughs.

While Kerry said he had narrowed the gaps between the sides, the lack of any visible progress has led to widespread pessimism on both sides.

Abbas said Kerry presented “useful and constructive suggestions” and promised to return to the region within the next week or so. In the meantime, Kerry has left senior aides in the region to continue his mediation efforts.

“We are optimistic because he is serious and determined to reach a solution,” Abbas said. The Palestinian leader addressed reporters at a news conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Enrico Letta.

Since taking office early this year, Kerry has been shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians in search of a formula for restarting peace talks, which have been stalled for nearly five years. It was his fifth visit to the region as secretary of state.

Before departing, Kerry said he had made significant progress in bringing the sides back to the negotiating table. But he declined to provide any details on the “package” he is working on, and asked both sides to keep quiet out of respect for the negotiating process.

The last substantive round of talks broke down in late 2008, shortly before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office.

The Palestinians have demanded that Netanyahu stop building in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem before talks resume. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state.

They also say that Israel should recognize its pre-1967 lines as the basis for final borders with a future Palestine. Netanyahu has rejected both demands, saying all disagreements should be resolved in negotiations.

Kerry’s efforts have placed the Palestinians in a delicate position. They do not want to be blamed for any failure. At the same time, if they resume talks on Netanyahu’s terms, Abbas would go against Palestinian public opinion.

After 20 years of intermittent talks with Israel, few believe there’s a chance to strike a deal with Netanyahu, an ideological hard-liner whose government is dominated by politicians who oppose significant concessions. Several top officials have even spoken out against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, Netanyahu played down these comments, saying that he is responsible for the country’s foreign policy. He said he was committed to seeing Kerry succeed and ready to start serious negotiations.

“I said that Secretary Kerry’s effort should be supported. If he were to pitch a tent between my office here in Jerusalem and Abu Mazen’s office in Ramallah then I would enter that tent immediately and I would stay in it so that we can devote serious effort to try to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.

Abu Mazen is Abbas’ nickname.

“The only way you can get to the end of the negotiations is to begin them, so we should get on with them — begin negotiations,” Netanyahu added.


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