JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry scrambled Wednesday to salvage his signature foreign policy goal as he shuttled between Israel and Palestinian leaders, trying to keep faltering peace talks from collapse.
Kerry was hit with an earful of complaints from both sides and struggled to remain optimistic in the face of rising public anger that threatens the political will of each side to negotiate seriously in pursuit of an elusive settlement. On his fifth solo trip to the region since taking office earlier this year, Kerry met twice with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and once with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. He is to see Abbas again in Amman, Jordan on Thursday.
U.S.-brokered talks for Israeli-Palestinian peace began at Kerry's behest three months ago. And while there has been a blackout on commentary for all sides, little, if any, progress has been evident. The talks were supposed to produce an agreement by the end of April 2014.
"As in any negotiation, there will be moments of up and moments of down," Kerry said, as the parties traded barbs about who is to blame for the current state of negotiations. "But ... we are determined to try to bring lasting peace to this region."
"We are convinced that despite the difficulties, both leaders, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, are also determined to work toward this goal," he said in Bethlehem, where he announced that the U.S. would give an additional $75 million in aid to create Palestinian jobs and help them improve roads, schools and other infrastructure. The assistance is designed to boost Palestinian popular support for the peace process, which is low because of Israel's continued new construction projects in areas claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
Tension was running high and on clear display after the Palestinians said a secret negotiating session on Tuesday broke down in an acrimonious dispute over Israeli settlement construction. Introducing Kerry in Bethlehem, the town's mayor denounced settlements as a "siege" on Palestinian land and people; Netanyahu opened his first meeting with Kerry by bashing the Palestinians for their behavior in the peace talks.
Kerry was left to cajole the parties into believing that peace deal is not a pipe dream.
"This is not mission impossible," Kerry said after a brief meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres. "It can happen."
Kerry flatly denied that Abbas had in any way agreed to "condone or accept" settlement activity.
"The Palestinians believe that the settlements are illegal, the United States has said it believes the settlements are not helpful and are illegitimate," Kerry said. But he quickly added: "That is not to say that they were not aware or we were not aware that there would be construction, but that that would be much better off, in our judgment, limited as much as possible."
Kerry publicly acknowledged that Abbas had agreed to not take the Palestinian case for statehood to the United Nations again as long as the talks are ongoing and as long as Israel continues to release prisoners. Those prisoner releases have proved a mounting headache for Netanyahu as many Israelis regard the inmates as terrorists and murderers who should not be freed.
Netanyahu, himself, was not in a charitable mood toward the Palestinians as he complained to Kerry that the talks were going nowhere.
"I'm concerned about their progress because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace," Netanyahu told Kerry.
And the acquittal in a graft trial of hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, who will return to the Israeli Cabinet in his former post as foreign minister will not be seen as helpful to the peace process.
Kerry insisted he was optimistic.
"We need the space to negotiate privately, secretly, quietly and we will continue to do that," he said. "We have six months ahead of us on the timetable we have set for ourselves and I am confident we have the ability to make progress."
The deadlock has raised speculation that the U.S. may need to step up its involvement and present its own blueprint for peace early next year, or perhaps lower expectations and pursue a limited, interim agreement. Kerry and his aides have refused to discuss such an option, insisting instead that the goal of the talks remains a comprehensive peace pact.
The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. They say they're willing to adjust those borders to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements as part of a "land swap."
Netanyahu opposes a withdrawal to Israel's pre-1967 lines, saying such borders would be indefensible.
He has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they reject on the grounds that it would harm the rights of Israel's Arab minority and Palestinian refugees who claim lost properties inside what is now Israel. Netanyahu also rejects shared control of east Jerusalem, home to key religious sites and the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.