US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 10, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 10, 2013 © Jim Watson - AFP/File
US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 10, 2013
Jo Biddle, AFP
Last updated: December 12, 2013

Kerry marks 70th birthday with return to Israel

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on his second Middle East trip in less than a week Thursday in yet another bid to promote a so far elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

He went straight to Ramallah in the West Bank for a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, slightly later than scheduled because of a winter storm sweeping the region.

On Friday, Kerry is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres before continuing on to Jordan.

Jordan's royal palace, meanwhile, said King Abdullah II and Abbas spoke by telephone Thursday to reaffirm their support for the top US diplomat's peace efforts.

Kerry's arrival a day after his 70th birthday was his 20th overseas trip since he took office in January and his ninth to Israel and the West Bank.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this week Washington's aim was "focused on a final deal" rather than an interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nine-month direct talks were launched between the sides by Kerry in July, and last week he said "we are closer than we have been in years" to reaching a deal.

However, the Palestinians said Kerry's ideas on future security arrangements, which were presented to the Palestinian leadership last week, had provoked a "real crisis".

On Monday, Kerry met Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat in Washington for three-hour trilateral talks.

But on Thursday, Livni accused a key Israeli coalition partner of deliberately seeking to sabotage the talks by ramping up settlement construction.

Speaking just hours before Kerry's arrival, Livni accused the far-right national religious Jewish Home of deliberately promoting settlement projects in a bid "to derail" the negotiations.

"More building, more announcements of building in isolated settlements are meant to prevent us reaching peace," she told an audience at Tel Aviv University in remarks broadcast on public radio.

"That is their deliberate intention, to derail the negotiations. To cause the other side to walk out of the room," she said.

Jewish Home controls the housing ministry, giving it a key role in promoting Israeli construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

As he seeks to keep the Palestinians and Israelis on track to reach a deal within the tight nine-month deadline, Kerry reiterated warnings late Wednesday that the status quo was unsustainable.

"I've heard all the arguments from all the pundits on all sides," Kerry told an event in Washington organised by Foreign Policy magazine.

"The conflict is too frozen. It's too complicated. They don't trust each other enough. There's no way possible that there are the ingredients to try to make peace.

"It's a fool's errand to believe that the future could be better than the past. President (Barack) Obama and I reject that cynicism," the online magazine quoted him as saying.

But after initial optimism following the relaunch of direct negotiations in July following a three-year hiatus, hopes are now beginning to fade.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Palestine Liberation Organisation official, said Monday Kerry's ideas on future security arrangements, which were presented to the Palestinian leadership last week, had caused a "real crisis".

"These ideas will drive Kerry's efforts to an impasse and to total failure because he is treating our issues with a high degree of indifference," Rabbo told AFP.

The proposals focus on security arrangements in the Jordan Valley down the eastern flank of the West Bank, with commentators saying it would allow Israel to maintain a long-term military presence there.

But the State Department's Psaki stressed: "This is not a 'here’s a plan, please ask for an up or down'. This is an ongoing discussion."

Kerry's December 11-18 trip will also take him to Vietnam, where he fought as a naval lieutenant in the Vietnam War, and the Philippines.

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