Kerry says Middle East peace talks have 'narrowed the gap' between Israelis and Palestinians

 

Jerusalem

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday fell short in his latest bid to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table. But he insisted that an agreement by the sides to renew negotiations is ''within reach''.

''We started with huge gaps and we have narrowed them,'' he told reporters at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv after holding three meetings since Thursday with each of the two sides. ''There are a few details but I am sure we are on the right track,'' he said. A renewal of negotiations, which broke down more than three years ago over Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank is ''within reach'' if a little more work is done, he said.

Mr. Kerry, making his fifth trip to the region since February, has impressed both sides with his perseverance although some Palestinians believe the influence of settlers and their allies on the Israeli government and the apparent reluctance of Washington to pressure Israel make the process a non-starter. ''No one has illusions that it is possible to make peace with this government,'' Mahmoud al-Aloul, a legislator from President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, told the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said there had been progress in the talks with Mr. Kerry but ''no breakthrough.'' This would change only if Israel met Palestinian demands that it freeze settlement building, accept the 1967 line between Israel and the West Bank as the basis for negotiations and release prisoners still being held since before the 1993 Oslo Agreement on self-rule, he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of a cabinet meeting that Israel is ready to resume talks without delays or preconditions and is not putting any hindrances in their way.

Gilad Erdan, the communications minister and a Likud party ally of Mr. Netanyahu, voiced opposition today to the Palestinian demand that 107 prisoners be freed. He said there was ''no comparison'' between freeing these prisoners, who are loyalists of Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement, and Israel's agreement in 2011 to free 1027 prisoners demanded by the militant Hamas group in exchange for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit.''That was in exchange for our soldier while this would be for starting negotiations which in all likelihood Abbas will detonate after one or two meetings.''he told Israel Radio.

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