Kerry pursuing 'quiet' Middle East peace strategy

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Top US diplomat John Kerry on Monday said he was pursuing a "quiet strategy" for breaking the years-long impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, warning the process could not be rushed.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Shimon Peres, Mr Kerry said he was "intensely focused" on advancing the peace process seen as "vital" to US and regional interests.

Mr Kerry, who is US President Barack Obama's new pointman on the Middle East, is on a fresh mission aimed at coaxing Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations frozen since September 2010.

The secretary of state said he believed it "would be irresponsible... not to explore thoroughly the possibilities for moving forward" as he seeks to overcome decades of mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians.

He was speaking ahead of a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which was added to his schedule at the last minute. The two leaders will also meet Tuesday for formal talks.

Mr Kerry arrived in Israel late Sunday, but in a break with tradition headed straight for the West Bank headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah - the third time the two men have met since Mr Kerry began his tenure.

But Washington's top diplomat said he was under no illusion about the tough road ahead.

"I understand it is a complicated, well-trod path of disappointments and/or moments of hope followed by breach of agreement or process, and that mistrust is very high," Kerry said.

"I am convinced that we can break that down, but I'm not going to do it under guidelines or time limits," he said, adding "this process should not be rushed." Mr Peres also spoke of a "new sense of optimism and hope" over the prospects of ending the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.

"Peace is possible," he said. "I believe that the gaps between us and our Palestinian neighbours can be bridged and I speak out of experience." Speaking with Mr Peres as his side, Mr Kerry also sought to reassure the Jewish state over the Iranian nuclear threat, saying Washington was aware the clock was ticking.

He attended morning ceremonies to remember the six million Jews who were killed during the Nazi Holocaust. "We understand the nature of the threat of Iran," Mr Kerry said just before his talks with Mr Peres.

"We will continue to seek a diplomatic solution, but our eyes are open and we understand that the clock is moving," he said, adding: "No option is off the table, no option will be taken off the table." Mr Peres expressed his "full trust" in Washington's commitment to stopping Iran from going nuclear.

During Kerry's meeting with Mr Abbas, they discussed economic development with several top aides, then held a private session at which Kerry insisted that the specifics be kept under wraps.

Mr Kerry was visiting Israel as an Arab ministerial committee met on Monday in Qatar to discuss ways of reviving the stalled peace process between the Palestinians and Israel.

The meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee was attended by Mr Abbas, and chaired by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.

Mr Abbas told Mr Kerry the release of prisoners held by Israel was a "top priority" for resuming peace talks, his spokesman told AFP.

The Palestinian leader has repeatedly made clear there would be no return to negotiations without a settlement freeze, but he has also made it known he would suspend for two months all efforts to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state to give US-brokered efforts a chance.

Mr Abbas also wants Mr Netanyahu to present a map of the borders of a future Palestinian state before talks can resume.

Mr Netanyahu has said he would not accept a return to the borders of before the 1967 Middle East war, and on Monday a high-ranking political official told Israel's Maariv newspaper that presenting a map was out of the question.

"It would be insane to present such a map," the official said, adding Israel would be "giving up our most important asset, without the Palestinians having committed themselves to anything."

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