Kerry, Abbas focus on new Middle East peace talks

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was holding new talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in a dogged bid to kick-start the moribund peace process.

A State Department official said the two men “will meet again this afternoon,” without giving further details.

The latest development came after Kerry and Abbas met into the early hours of Wednesday over a traditional iftar Ramadan meal in Amman lasting for some five hours.

Kerry is on his sixth visit to the region as he seeks to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct negotiations which broke down almost three years ago.

A Palestinian official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP things were moving and Kerry was “determined” to announce a resumption of talks before he leaves the region at the end of the week.

“There has been progress in meetings with Kerry after he presented his initiative to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting in Amman,” the high-ranking official said.

“The U.S. secretary of state is determined to announce, before he leaves on Friday, a restart of negotiations,” he added.

But State Department officials have remained tight-lipped on the substance of the two men’s talks in line with what Kerry has dubbed his “quiet strategy.”

“They continued the conversation they have been having for the last few months and touched on recent developments,” a senior State Department official said in a statement.

The two men also “discussed details of an economic plan that would help bolster the Palestinian economy” by attracting some $4 billion in private investment into the territories.

Kerry earlier on Wednesday briefed a delegation from the Arab League peace initiative on his progress and ideas for resuming the talks stalled since September 2010.

However, his visit comes amid Israeli anger over new European Union guidelines barring the 28-member bloc from funding projects in Jewish settlements.

Israeli officials said the EU move could prove a stumbling block to Kerry’s diplomatic efforts.

And indeed there are no immediate plans for Kerry to visit Israel and to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike previous trips when he has shuttled back and forth between Amman and Jerusalem.

In comments to the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag released on Wednesday, Netanyahu said the EU policy marked “the attempt to forcibly determine Israel’s borders through economic pressure instead of through negotiations.”

He said such a move was wrong, adding that “it hardens the Palestinian position and leads Israel to lose faith in Europe’s neutrality.”

The Palestinians are refusing to return to negotiations without a freeze on settlement activity and Israel’s acceptance of the 1967 lines as the basis for final status negotiations. Israel says it wants talks but without “preconditions.”

Kerry also discussed the upheaval in Egypt and the conflict in Syria with the Arab League leaders at their meeting at the foreign ministry in Amman.

Cairo was represented by Ambassador Amr Aboul Atta, Egypt’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi was also present along with Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, and ministers and top officials from Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the US State Department said.

Kerry is also mulling a visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, which would make him the most senior member of the U.S. administration to see first hand the tragedy of the conflict now in its third year.

Jordan is hosting some 550,000 refugees who have fled the fighting as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aided by Hezbollah militants seeks to crush a rebellion against his rule.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that 5,000 people a month are dying in the war which has now triggered the worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Nearly 1.8 million people are registered as refugees living in countries neighbouring Syria.

It remained uncertain whether Kerry’s visit to the camp would go ahead for security and logistical concerns.

Kerry was also due to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II later on Wednesday.

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