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Kerry resumes tough Israeli-Palestinian peace drive

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps off his plane as he arrives in Amman airport, June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Majed Jaber
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps off his plane as he arrives in Amman airport, June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Majed Jaber

By Lesley Wroughton

AMMAN (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry's drive to revive Middle East peace talks hit familiar warning signals on Thursday as Israel's prime minister stressed security needs and a Palestinian negotiator denounced Israeli settlement building.

Kerry, on his fifth visit to the region, will hold separate talks with Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem over the next three days.

Israeli settlement building on occupied land Palestinians seek for a state remains a main stumbling block to the resumption of peace talks that collapsed over the issue in 2010.

Kerry's arrival in Amman on Wednesday coincided with news that Israel had approved 69 new housing units in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, while building continues elsewhere.

"Obviously steps like this are unhelpful, but we remain hopeful that both parties will recognize the opportunity and the necessity to go back to the table," the State Department said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has long demanded that settlement activity stop before peace talks resume, despite U.S. and Israeli calls for negotiations without preconditions.

"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," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, professing his support for creation of a Palestinian state, which he says must be demilitarized, has quietly frozen housing starts in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But in a speech on Thursday, he appeared to put the United States on notice that he would stick to his security demands even at the risk of failed peace efforts should they resume.

Israelis, he said, "do not want a bi-national state" but they understand that security is a "fundamental condition for our existence".

Netanyahu has called for an Israeli military presence along the eastern border of a Palestinian state, a demand opposed by Abbas, and spoken of the danger of rocket fire at Israel from the West Bank unless tough security arrangements are agreed.

SEPTEMBER TARGET

Kerry has revealed few details of his strategy to bring the sides together. But he has said he wants to show progress before September, when the United Nations General Assembly, which has already granted de facto recognition to a Palestinian state, resumes its debate over the Middle East.

Israel is concerned that the Palestinians, in the absence of peace talks, could use the U.N. session as a springboard for further unilateral statehood moves.

Israeli newspapers expressed skepticism that Kerry's mission would achieve anything substantial.

"Kerry is still not trying to twist the leaders' arms to get them to sign a painful historic peace, but only to sit down together," said an editorial in Israel's popular Maariv daily.

"The fact that the Americans have become bogged down in the attempts to resume the talks is telling, in and of itself, of American weakness, and projects pessimism as to the process itself, which has not yet begun," it said.

Kerry has again called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take hard decisions for peace. "It is urgent because time is the enemy of a peace process," he said in Kuwait on Wednesday.

In a possible trial balloon related to Kerry's mission, Israel's Haaretz newspaper quoted an unnamed minister from Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party as saying the prime minister knew a peace deal would mean giving up most of the West Bank.

"Netanyahu understands that for a peace agreement, it will be necessary to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank and evacuate more than a few settlements," he said. "He knows this is one of the things that will be discussed."

In an address to the U.S. Congress in 2011, Netanyahu talked of a land-for-peace bargain, but gave no percentages.

The bulk of Israeli West Bank settlers live in blocs that take up 5-6 percent of the territory, so a pullout on the scale envisaged by the minister could leave most of them in place.

A spokesman for Netanyahu said he had no comment on the Haaretz report.

Most countries deem all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal. Israel, which captured the land in the 1967 Middle East War, disputes this. There are about 120 government-authorized settlements in the West Bank and dozens of outposts built by settlers without official sanction.

(Writing by Lesley Wroughton in Amman and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem)

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