U.S. Official: Syria, Egypt Turmoil Improves Chances of Success in Peace Talks

Fear of being engulfed by the chaos motivates Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace agreement, says senior U.S. state department official.

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The turmoil in both Syria and Egypt is nudging Israelis and Palestinians toward peace, a United States official said on Friday, as Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Europe for talks on Middle East issues.

Kerry's three-day trip was originally intended to brief European and Arab diplomats on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but that objective is likely to be overshadowed by the ongoing crisis in Syria. The secretary of state is expected to lobby for support for President Barack Obama's proposed military strike against Syria while in Europe.

On Sunday, Kerry is scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in London.

The senior U.S. State Department official said Syria's civil war and the upheaval in Egypt following the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi have given Israelis and Palestinians an incentive to end their conflict.

"Both sides have made clear to us and to each other that they do not want the turmoil to engulf them and that therefore it motivates them to try to resolve their conflict to prevent that from happening," the official told reporters travelling with Kerry.

Kerry will meet European Union foreign ministers in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on Saturday and with members of an Arab League committee formed to track Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Sunday. His meeting in London with Abbas was expected to last for several hours, the official said.

In his meeting with the EU foreign ministers, Kerry is expected to ask them to reconsider a funding ban on Israeli institutions operating in the occupied West Bank. Announced in July, the ban applies to grants, prizes and financial instruments totaling millions of euros which are awarded to Israeli universities, companies and researchers every year.

A second senior state department official, who briefed reporters on Kerry's plane on condition that he not be identified, said Kerry's message to the EU foreign ministers would be that, with the parties in negotiations and both leaders facing painful political decisions, it was important for the EU to "find a way to embrace the negotiations and encourage them to move forward rather than metaphorically banging them over the head."

The meeting with Abbas is part of ongoing conversations Kerry is having with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The one-on-one meetings are designed to be a confidential way that lets Kerry get a sense of where each stands on various negotiating issues, define their bottom lines and to get an idea of how it might be possible to bridge the gaps between them.

Kerry was due to meet with Netanyahu in Rome during his trip, but the Israeli leader decided that with the instability in Syria, it was best to stay home. The senior official said a three-way meeting was never planned because that would be premature, and that Kerry and Netanyahu would meet soon.

Kerry is due to return to Washington on Monday and is expected to plunge back into the U.S. debate over Syria. Congress is expected to vote on the proposed military strike against Syria next week.

"I don't expect huge, huge change on the day after (any U.S. strike)," a second senior State Department official told reporters with Kerry. "I think the war of attrition will grind on ... without the use of chemical weapons," he said. "It is a war of attrition that the regime slowly, gradually is losing."

US Secretary of State John Kerry (l) is greeted in Vilnius by Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas (c) and US Ambassador to Lithuania Deborah McCarthy.Credit: AFP