Kerry seeks to rescue Israeli-Palestinian peace process

JERUSALEM (AFP) - United States Secretary of State John Kerry will hold talks on Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to keep the peace process from collapsing, urging them to reach a long-elusive deal.

Only a few hours after Mr Kerry arrived on Tuesday in Israel on a new mission to bring the two sides together, a Palestinian official said peace negotiations have stumbled.

The official said the Palestinians would refuse to continue participating in direct talks as long as Israel fails to halt settlement building.

In a dramatic, symbolic message, Mr Kerry headed first for the Tel Aviv square where Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 18 years ago to honour the memory of "a great man of peace".

Mr Rabin, who memorably shook hands with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, was gunned down on Nov 4, 1995 by a right-wing Israeli extremist opposed to concessions in the peace talks.

Laying a wreath at a memorial in the square, Mr Kerry recalled how just before he was shot, Mr Rabin had been singing a song of peace with President Shimon Peres.

"We are now 18 years since that moment and it is clear that we need voices ready to sing a song of peace, loudly, with courage, with the same determination prime minister Rabin showed with his quest for peace," Mr Kerry said.

"He dared to take the risks for peace, not just because it was important to take the risks, but that it was vital to secure the future of Israel and the region." Mr Kerry's words were clearly a message ahead of his talks on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Peres in Jerusalem, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem.

But a senior Palestinian official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP that the Palestinians would refuse to continue the talks as long as Jewish settlement on the West Bank proliferates.

"The Israeli side is determined to continue its settlement and we cannot continue negotiations under these unprecedented settlement attacks," he said after a stormy meeting of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

"The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations broke down during the session on Tuesday night," he added.