Kerry extended his latest Middle East trip Thursday to await news of a possible breakthrough from the Palestinians, who have been reluctant to return to talks without first setting conditions, such as a ban on new Israeli settlement building on land that the Palestinians claim for a future state.
Kerry had hoped to restart talks in June and had said during his last visit to the region, late last month, that a deal to do so was within reach. But his efforts to offer Palestinians an incentive to bargain without meeting their long-standing demands appeared to have fallen short.
As Palestinian discussions continued late Thursday, a State Department official said Kerry would return to Washington on Friday after a last consultation with both sides.
“It is appropriate and encouraging that there is such a serious debate about these issues,” the senior department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Kerry’s discussions with both sides were confidential. “We understand that there are many strongly held views and appreciate efforts to find a basis to move forward.”
U.S. officials said the holdup is temporary, but the lack of a deal to even begin talks was a clear disappointment. Kerry’s efforts have been focused on just starting the talks, with what would presumably be the hardest bargaining yet to come.
On Thursday, President Obama spoke on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and encouraged him to continue to work with Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, according to a White House statement.
U.S. officials remain confident that talks will resume before late September, when the U.N. General Assembly holds its annual meeting.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could use the U.N. gathering to further an end run around statehood talks by bolstering Palestinian membership in U.N. organizations. That membership could have the effect of conferring statehood benefits on the Palestinians even as Israel’s occupation continues.
On Thursday afternoon, Abbas, who met with Kerry twice this week in Jordan, convened a meeting at his West Bank headquarters with about 40 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee and the leadership of his Fatah political party and other smaller factions.
Reporters were ushered in for a photo but then sent away from the compound with no word on the outcome of the discussions.
Qaif Abdul Kareem, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Thursday evening that the committee needed clarification on some central points in the format presented by Kerry, including what the borders might be, the settlements and the future of Jerusalem.
He said, however, that discussions were not finished and that meetings would continue through the night.
On Wednesday, Kerry said the two sides had narrowed their differences “very significantly” and were close to resuming talks that have been dormant for most of the past five years.
The trip was Kerry’s sixth to the region this year, mostly in pursuit of peace talks to end a conflict that spans more than six decades. The goal is an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with guarantees to Israel that its security will not be compromised.
Booth reported from Jerusalem. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.