U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel on Wednesday to limit settlement building, an issue that is weighing on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Friction over the talks has risen this past week on the back of Israeli plans, announced in tandem with its release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, for some 5,000 new homes for settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
"Let me emphasize at this point the position of the United States of America on the settlements is that we consider them... to be illegitimate," Kerry said after discussions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Kerry said it would be better if settlement building was "limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively."
Kerry, faced with grim Israeli and Palestinian assessments of progress in peace talks, said that Washington was not giving up on a deal.
"As in any negotiation there will be moments of up and moments of down, and it goes back and forth," Kerry said.
"But I can tell you that President Obama and I are determined, and neither of us will stop in our efforts to pursue the possibility [of peace]," he said.
Earlier at a meeting with Kerry in nearby Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the negotiations on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had failed to make any real progress.
The bleak picture painted by the right-wing leader was similar to the one sketched by senior Palestinians, who have said the Israeli plan for 5,000 more settler homes in the West Bank was a major obstacle to the success of the negotiations.
But in Bethlehem, Kerry said the United States, Israel's closest ally, was convinced "that despite the difficulties, both leaders, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, are also determined to work towards this goal".
Kerry, whose shuttle diplomacy helped to revive the land-for-peace talks last July after a three-year break, has set a nine-month target window for an agreement, despite widespread skepticism among Israelis and Palestinians.
Few details have emerged from the negotiations, held at unannounced times and at secret locations in line with pledges to keep a lid on leaks.
But Palestinian officials have been airing their frustration over a lack of movement on core issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, security arrangements, the future of Israeli settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Abbas, in a speech broadcast on Monday, said that after all the rounds of negotiations "there is nothing on the ground."
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