U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel Sunday afternoon after three days of marathon talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, ending his mission to restart peace talks without an agreement. However, Kerry said that gaps had been narrowed and he would return to the region soon.
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"I'm pleased to tell you that we have made real progress on this trip. And I believe that with a little more work, the start of final status negotiations could be within reach," he said at a news conference at Ben-Gurion airport before his departure. "We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably.
Kerry did not elaborate, but said he would leave a team of aides in the region to continue the mediation efforts - Frank Lowenstein, his Middle East adviser and Jonathan Schwartz, a State Department legal expert. Kerry also said that at the request of both sides, he would return to the area in the near future.
After Kerry left Ramallah following his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier Sunday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that "no breakthrough was reached during the talks that would allow for a renewal of negotiations."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Sunday said that Israel is not the party holding up the renewal of Middle East peace talks, reiterating that Jerusalem is willing to sit down immediately and without preconditions.
"We are not creating any barriers to renewed final-status negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. "There are certain issues we will stand firm on – first and foremost, security," he said.
Netanyahu added that he believes any agreement reached with the Palestinians would have to be subject to a public referendum.
Kerry met with Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and a few of their aides on Saturday. The meeting, which concluded around 3:30 A.M., lasted for around six hours.
Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
At least one Israeli official expressed optimism about a possible breakthrough. "There is a high probability a four-way summit will take place, perhaps as soon as this week," an Israeli official said Saturday. The official was confirming reports by Jordanian papers the same day that Kerry would announce at the end of his visit a four-way summit in Amman among Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and the United States to restart direct talks.
The Jordanian paper Ad-Dustour reported that Kerry conveyed to Abbas Israel's responses to the Palestinians' demands on Friday. The paper said Israel told Kerry that Palestinian demands, including the release of prisoners held in Israel, would be addressed gradually.
Kerry reportedly told Abbas that the delineation of borders and Israel's security demands would be at the heart of the intensive negotiations.
However, both Jerusalem and Ramallah remained generally pessimistic.