Kerry extends marathon Mideast peace effort

Secretary of State John F. Kerry continued his shuttle diplomacy here early Sunday morning, winding up a six-hour dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 3:30 a.m., and driving to Ramallah, in the West Bank, for a final talk with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before Kerry’s scheduled afternoon departure from the Middle East.

Amid signs of progress, but no confirmation that he is on the verge of a deal to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, Kerry “is clearly willing to put in the legwork necessary to move this process forward in a meaningful way,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the tightly guarded talks.

Kerry’s face-to-face diplomacy has been interrupted only for the time it has taken to travel back and forth to the parties. Since Thursday evening, he has had three extended meetings with Netanyahu; and three with Abbas, two of them in the Jordanian capital of Amman. His staff has scrambled to arrange logistics and security on a moment’s notice.

The goal of the meetings is to persuade the two men to at least begin talks toward a sustainable two-state solution to the long-running­ conflict, with the hard work of actually negotiating an agreement still stretching far into the future.

Although he is due to attend a meeting with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the sultanate of Brunei that begins Monday, Kerry has already postponed his departure from the Middle East, originally scheduled for Saturday night, and canceled a stop in the United Arab Emirates.

The nonstop meetings have set off a frenzy of speculation in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan that Kerry may be able to broker a deal, if not for an immediate Israel-Palestinian meeting, at least for a confirmed date for talks to start. The rising expectations, however, have also increased the likely magnitude of perceived failure in the event Kerry does not succeed.

As they sat down for a private dinner Saturday night with Netanyahu’s team, Kerry and his aides appeared somber and exhausted. But the composition of the parties on both sides seemed to indicate that discussions had gone beyond generalities to technical specifics.

Netanyahu was accompanied by special adviser Isaac Molho, National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, military secretary Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

At Kerry’s side were his deputy chief of staff, John Bass, legal adviser Jonathan Schwartz and Frank Lowenstein, the State Department’s special emissary for Middle East peace.

“I want to thank you, John,” Netanyahu said to Kerry. “This looks like a Seder,” the ritual Jewish feast that marks the beginning of Passover.

“It is,” Kerry replied.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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