Palestinians downbeat over Mideast talks as Kerry hails ‘real progress’

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A top Palestinian official said on Sunday that there had been no breakthrough in marathon U.S.-led efforts to revive direct peace talks but Washington’s top diplomat said there had been “real progress.”

Speaking shortly after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finished talks in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, his third meeting in as many days, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said there was “still a gap” between the two sides.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited to make a last-minute push on Sunday to revive Middle East peace talks as Israeli media said that days of exhaustive shuttle diplomacy had failed to break the deadlock.

Kerry has spent 13 hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since Thursday, with the latest session between the two men and their aides lasting until nearly 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) at a hotel suite overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.

A sleep-deprived Kerry headed to Ramallah in the West Bank on Sunday morning to consult for the third day in a row with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, a U.S. official said. His previous two meetings with Abbas took place in Amman.

Israel’s army radio painted a grim picture of Kerry’s initiative, saying that he has apparently failed in his goal of restarting direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after a gap of nearly three years.

The last face-to-face negotiations broke down quickly in September 2010, with Abbas accusing Israel of refusing to talk substance.

The Palestinian leader is pushing Israel to free the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners as a sign of commitment to peace, to remove roadblocks in the West Bank and to publicly agree to making the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war the baseline for negotiations.

But army radio said that Netanyahu was willing to consider just the first two conditions -- but only after talks were under way, and even then in stages.

So far, Israel has flatly refused to countenance any return to the 1967 borders.

Army radio also said an Israeli committee was likely to push through the construction of another 900 new homes in annexed east Jerusalem, in a meeting scheduled to take place on Monday.

The committee had given final approval to around 70 homes in the same area on Wednesday, on the eve of Kerry’s visit.

Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of a lack of sincerity by moving ahead on construction in east Jerusalem -- which they want as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Kerry has made the elusive goal of Middle East peace a top priority. He is paying his fifth visit to the region since taking on the role of top U.S. diplomat in February.

But he is running against the clock.

Kerry is scheduled to attend a meeting of southeast Asian leaders in Brunei on Monday, at which he will also hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the Syrian crisis and a row over the presence in Moscow of U.S. leaker Edward Snowden.

Kerry -- whose predecessor Hillary Clinton had made Asia a defining focus -- also plans to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and to hold three-way talks with Japan and South Korea, U.S. allies whose relations have recently been sour.

U.S. officials said Kerry was dedicated to seeking progress in the Middle East and plans to speak before flying out. He cancelled a dinner on Saturday in Abu Dhabi on the Syria crisis to spend more time shuttling between Netanyahu and Abbas.

“Kerry is willing to put in the legwork necessary to move this process forward in a meaningful way,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about the substance of Kerry’s meetings, fearing that any public statements could put at risk his efforts.

On Kerry’s all-night meeting with Netanyahu and senior aides, a U.S. official said only that the two men discussed a “wide range of issues related to the peace process” over a dinner of hummus, pita and sea bream.

Netanyahu had a tense relationship with President Barack Obama during the U.S. leader’s first term, with the Israeli leader resisting calls to renew a freeze on settlement construction as part of efforts aimed at leading to a Palestinian state.

Israel had observed a 10-month freeze on new West Bank construction which expired shortly after direct negotiations began in September 2010, with the renewal of settlement building causing the talks to collapse.

While some ministers and aides have described Netanyahu as increasingly pragmatic, he emerged from January elections with a coalition of hardliners, many of whom oppose a Palestinian state.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, recently described the Palestinian issue as “shrapnel in the buttocks” - a problem Israel simply had to keep suffering through -- but threatened to quit if the government agreed to a Palestinian state.

Abbas also faces internal dissent with the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the impoverished Gaza Strip, strongly criticizing him for pursuing talks.

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