U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, trying to keep his Middle East peace initiative on track in the face of fresh controversy over Israeli settlements, said he had "frank and open" talks on the matter with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.
In a telephone conversation with Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the Israeli negotiating team vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Kerry expressed U.S. concerns over ongoing announcements regarding construction plans in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying they were not helpful to the negotiations with the Palestinians, which are slated to resume Wednesday.
At a press conference in Brazil on Tuesday, however, Kerry said he did not think the construction announcements would disrupt the talks.
According to a senior Israeli official and a senior American official, Kerry reminded Netanyahu and Livni during the phone conversation that Israel had promised to limit construction in the settlements during the nine planned months of talks with the Palestinians.
He said that while the United States had been appraised of the planned construction of 1,200 homes in the settlement blocs and East Jerusalem, the recent tender announcement for 900 apartments in Gilo and the advancement of plans to build hundreds of homes in isolated settlements had taken them by surprise.
Kerry called the Israeli leaders after receiving vehement protests about the construction announcements from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
At the press conference in Brazil alongside Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, Kerry Kerry confirmed that he had spoken with Netanyahu and Livni, saying they had held an open and frank discussion regarding the settlements. Kerry said that the United States sees settlement construction as illegitimate and that he had made this clear to the Israeli government.
Kerry also said he believed Palestinian President Abbas "is committed to continue" peace talks with Israel.
Kerry's remarks came just as Israel was preparing to release 26 Palestinian prisoners jailed before the signing of the Oslo Accords, as part of a goodwill gesture to jumpstart the peace process.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to resume their talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem.
During that meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, expected to take several hours, the parties will discuss the overall guidelines for the negotiations and their agenda, but are also expected to start presenting their positions on some of the issues.
The Israelis will be represented by Livni and Netanyahu’s special envoy, Isaac Molho. The Palestinian team will consist of chief negotiator Erekat and senior Fatah official Mohammed Shtayyeh. Also participating will be Martin Indyk, the special U.S. envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and his deputy, Frank Lowenstein. The two are expected to be in the negotiating room during most of the rounds of talks.
At the end of the day, the parties will decide whether they want to continue the talks immediately.
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