Kerry arrives in Israel as rumors swirl of Netanyahu, Abbas meeting


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday, June 27, 2013. Kerry is in Israel for the fifth time, to make further efforts to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry met into the early hours of Friday morning here with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he announced no progress in efforts to restart negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry is due to meet with Abbas in Amman on Friday, and he has left time in his schedule for a possible return to Jerusalem, part of an exercise in shuttle diplomacy perhaps not seen since the days of Henry Kissinger. But Kerry took it one step further, arriving here by road from Amman, and driving back through the middle of the night along eerily empty highways on both sides of the Jordan River.

On Thursday, State Department officials denied reports that a face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas had been arranged.

“We didn’t meet Kerry yet, so there’s nothing new,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said. He said an afternoon message “accepting” a Netanyahu meeting, purportedly sent from Abbas’s Twitter account, was bogus.

Kerry, who has spoken with increasing urgency about the need to begin talks before the end of the summer, arrived in Amman on Wednesday evening for his fifth visit to the region this year. After lunch with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, he left in a dozen-vehicle convoy, accompanied by a hovering Jordanian military helicopter and security vehicles.

Once the convoy had crossed the Allenby Bridge, the Jordanians turned back, and the vehicles pulled off the road. Kerry and his entourage shifted into a waiting line of Israeli and U.S. diplomatic vehicles for the 40-minute drive into Jerusalem. Early Friday, he repeated the process in reverse.

Netanyahu was nearly an hour late for the dinner he and Kerry had planned at the David Citadel Hotel, where they met in a private suite named for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. As they stood for the cameras before an unlit fireplace, smiling, shaking hands and clapping each other’s shoulders, Netanyahu said he had been delayed by a graduation ceremony for Israeli military pilots.

When the meeting ended at 1:25 a.m., a senior administration official tasked with delivering the news said only that it was “productive, in-depth and wide-ranging” and that the two had spoken one-on-one for much of their four hours together.

Kerry has held firmly to his oft-stated belief that the peace process effort must be closely held to have any chance of advancing.

Although Kerry clearly hopes to make progress, officials were less than eager to make promises where there has been so much disappointment.

U.S. officials branded as inaccurate widespread Israeli media reports of Abbas’s setting preconditions for the start of negotiations, such as the release of 120 longtime Palestinian prisoners or a settlement freeze. Kerry has had difficulty pinning down what exactly Abbas does want as inducement to return to peace talks.

Since March, Israel appears to have slowed down on approving settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although the government has not announced any such policy decision.

But Kerry was said to be less than encouraged when local Israeli housing authorities, on the eve of his visit Wednesday, granted building permits for 69 units in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem. The apartments would be erected in a part of East Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as the future capital of a future state. Israel annexed the area after the 1967 war.

The Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, condemned the planned housing, comparing the situation to a 2010 episode when Israeli officials approved settlement construction while Vice President Biden was visiting.

“Israel has a selected repertoire awaiting U.S. officials, like what happened to Mr. Biden, which includes settlements, settlements and more settlements,” Erekat said in a statement. “Settlement activity in and around occupied East Jerusalem is one of the main reasons why the two-state solution is disappearing, as without East Jerusalem there will be no Palestinian state.”

Israeli officials said the permits for 69 units in southern East Jerusalem had nothing to do with Kerry’s trip but were a coincidental decision by local housing bureaucrats.

Speaking at an event Thursday honoring Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl, Netanyahu said: “Peace is based on security. It is not based on goodwill and legitimacy, as is believed. It is based, first of all, on our ability to defend ourselves. Without security, without the army, the establishment of which Herzl called for, we will be unable to defend the peace, we will be unable to defend ourselves if the peace frays.” 

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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