Kerry: Israel, Palestinians closest to peace ‘in years’

The U.S. diplomat says Israel’s security is “fundamental” to the peace negotiations with the Palestinians

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Israel and the Palestinians are closer to a peace deal than they have been in years, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday wrapping up his latest visit.

“I believe we are closer than we have been in years to bringing about the peace and the prosperity and the security that all of the people of this region deserve,” Kerry told reporters travelling with his delegation at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.

His remarks were made after a day-and-a-half of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials aimed at driving forward the direct negotiations which began in late July but have made little apparent progress as they approach the halfway point.

Meanwhile, Kerry was meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the third time in 24 hours on Friday for talks understood to be focused on security.

Kerry, who is seeking ways to drive forward stagnant peace talks, met twice with Netanyahu on Thursday for more than six hours of talks about potential security issues in any peace agreement.

He also held a three-hour meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Early on Friday, Kerry met Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid at a Jerusalem hotel, after which he entered another round of talks with Netanyahu, officials said.

The U.S. diplomat was then expected to head straight to Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv where he would hold a news conference before flying home.

Kerry has said Israel’s security is “fundamental” to the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and a top priority for Washington in nuclear negotiations with Iran.

But his talks in Ramallah did not appear to go so well, with Abbas failing to show at a joint press conference and officials later saying that U.S. proposals on security were unacceptable.

“Today, we discussed at great length issues of security in the region, security for the state of Israel, security for a future Palestine. And we, I think, made some progress,” Kerry said.

“The interests are very similar, but there are questions of sovereignty, questions of respect and dignity which are obviously significant to the Palestinians, and for the Israelis -- very serious questions of security,” he said.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP the situation was “still very difficult and matters are complicated” but a senior Palestinian source was more direct, saying Kerry’s security proposals “were very bad ideas which we cannot accept.”

In talks with Netanyahu on Thursday, Kerry and top security adviser General John Allen outlined their view of some of the security challenges likely to face Israel in the context of a final peace agreement.

Earlier this week, Haaretz newspaper said Washington was focusing on resolving Israel’s security needs in the hope it will allow them to push Netanyahu on other aspects, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has said Israel would only accept the emergence of a Palestinian state if it was demilitarized, with Israeli troops deployed along the Jordan Valley -- an option the Palestinians completely reject.

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