Amid EU tensions || Kerry wins Arab League support for efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
U.S. Secretary of State meets Arab League officials, Palestinian president in Amman, says Mideast gaps have been greatly narrowed; meeting takes place amid crisis between Israel and EU, which decided to bar financial aid to organizations in Israeli settlements.
Kerry, on his sixth trip to the Middle East in as many months as America's top diplomat, met in Jordan with representatives of the Arab League and nine of its members that support a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia.
After the meeting, the Arab delegates said they supported Kerry's initiative. "The Arab delegates believe Kerry's ideas proposed to the committee today constitute a good ground and suitable environment for restarting the negotiations, especially the new and important political, economic and security elements," the statement said.
Kerry also urged Israel to consider carefully a 2002 Arab League peace initiative that it rejected in the past.
"Israel needs to look hard at this initiative, which promises Israel peace with 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations - a total of 57 nations that are standing and waiting for the possibility of making peace with Israel," he said in Amman, where he met officials from Arab League member countries.
The plan, put forward by Saudi Arabia at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, offered full recognition of Israel but only if it gave up all land seized in the 1967 Middle East war and agreed to a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees. Softening the plan three months ago, a top Qatari official raised the possibility of land swaps in setting future Israeli-Palestinian borders.
Kerry voiced confidence that he was on track toward achieving soon a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, saying gaps had been greatly narrowed.
"We have been able to narrow these gaps very significantly. And so we continue to get closer and I continue to remain hopeful that the sides can soon be able to come and sit at the same table," Kerry told a news conference in Amman, where he held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab officials.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Kerry on Wednesday. His meeting with Abbas in the Jordanian capital Amman was Kerry's second in as many days. It was to be followed, according to a Palestinian official, by a briefing on the U.S. proposals that Abbas will give to other PLO leaders on Thursday ahead of a decision on whether they should resume negotiations with Israel.
Neither U.S. nor Palestinian officials have given details of the discussions between Abbas and Kerry, who is making his sixth visit to the region since he took office in February.
Israel has also said little this week but announced a step that clashed with U.S. peace efforts. The state granted initial approval on Wednesday for the construction of 732 new homes in Modiin Ilit, a settlement midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
"These are very preliminary stages," an Israeli spokeswoman said after the planning committee of Israel's military-run Civil Administration in the occupied West Bank gave the green light for the project. "Any more advanced stages require the approval of the Defence Ministry."
Abbas has said settlement expansion must stop before negotiations that collapsed in 2010 over the issue can resume. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on him to return to talks unconditionally.
A positive Palestinian decision, if one were to emerge on Thursday or soon thereafter, would be the first tangible sign of progress in Kerry's nearly six-month drive to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, now largely overshadowed by upheaval in Egypt and civil war in Syria.
"The president will present the offer made to him by Mr. Kerry in order to make a decision about it," Wasel Abu Youssef, a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official, told Reuters in Ramallah of Abbas's plan to brief PLO colleagues on Thursday.
The European Union said on Tuesday it would bar financial assistance to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied territories, a move Israel's prime minister denounced as meddling in bilateral relations with the Palestinians.