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Kerry steps up shuttle talks with Abbas and Netanyahu

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) gestures as he meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Ja
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) gestures as he meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Ja

By Lesley Wroughton

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accelerated his Middle East shuttle diplomacy on Friday in the hope of persuading Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct peace negotiations.

After seeing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan, Kerry flew by helicopter to Jerusalem for evening talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a sign that he may be making progress in his mission to bring the sides together, a State Department official announced late on Friday that Kerry would return to Amman for another meeting with Abbas on Saturday, then return to Israel for additional meetings.

The frenzied back-and-forth is reminiscent of Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy as secretary of state to mediate conflicts in the Middle East throughout the 1970s.

The State Department official said a three-hour meeting with Netanyahu on Friday, the second in as many days, involved a "detailed and substantive conversation about the way forward".

Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Kerry for his determination.

"I know this is difficult, there are many problems, but as far as I'm concerned I can see how (among) people, there is a clear majority for the peace process, a two-state solution, and a great expectation that you will do it and that you can do it," he told Kerry.

Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories that the Palestinians seek for a future state.

Abbas has insisted that building in the settlements, viewed as illegal by most world powers, be halted before talks resume. He also wants Israel to recognize the boundary of the West Bank as the basis for the future Palestine's border.

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Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdaineh said a "clear response" was needed from Israel before talks could resume.

Israel wants to keep settlement blocs under any future peace accord and has rejected Abbas's demands as preconditions. But it has also quietly slowed down housing starts in settlements.

Palestinian and U.S. officials did not immediately comment on the results of the Abbas-Kerry meeting. Zeev Elkin, Israel's deputy foreign minister, placed the peacemaking onus on Abbas.

Asked on Israel Radio whether Kerry's visit - his fifth - could bring a breakthrough, Elkin said: "The only one who knows the answer to that question is not Kerry, nor Netanyahu, but Abu Mazen (Abbas)."

Kerry has divulged little of his plan to bring the sides together, but has said he would not have returned to the region if he did not believe there could be progress.

He is also keen to clinch a peacemaking deal before the United Nations General Assembly, which has already granted de facto recognition to a Palestinian state, convenes in September.

Netanyahu is concerned that the Palestinians, in the absence of direct peace talks, could use the U.N. session as a springboard for further statehood moves circumventing Israel.

State Department officials believe the sides will return to negotiations once there is an agreement on confidence-building measures - for example, partial Israeli amnesty for Palestinian security prisoners - and a formula for fresh talks.

Part of the incentive for the Palestinians to return to talks is a $4 billion economic plan led by former British prime minister Tony Blair, whom Kerry also met in Jordan.

The plan involves investments from large private-sector firms that will boost jobs and spur economic growth in agriculture, construction and tourism.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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