JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a gloomy assessment of peace prospects with the Palestinians on Thursday as US Secretary of State John Kerry began his 10th visit to the region in pursuit of a deal.
"There is growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace," said Netanyahu, speaking with Kerry at his side and accusing Palestinian officials of orchestrating a campaign of "rampant" incitement against Israel.
Netanyahu specifically criticised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the heroes' welcome he gave a group of Palestinian prisoners, most convicted of murdering Israelis, who were released from Israeli jails on Tuesday.
"To glorify the murderers of innocent women and men as heroes is an outrage," he said. The prisoner release was arranged as part of last year's US-brokered package to revive peace talks.
In the days before Kerry's latest trip to Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders have likewise accused Israel of trying to sabotage the talks aimed at ending their decades-old conflict.
Kerry focused his remarks on a continued US push toward a final peace agreement, which Washington hopes to achieve by the end of April, and his shorter-term pursuit of a framework deal that would pave the way for a permanent accord.
He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders were nearing the point, or were already at it, where they would have to make tough decisions, and he pledged to work with both sides more intensely to try to narrow differences on a framework agreement.
Guidelines in such an accord would address core issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, security, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, Kerry said.
"It would create the fixed, defined parameters by which the parties would then know where they are going and what the end result can be," he said. "This will take time and it will take compromise from both sides, but an agreed framework would be a significant breakthrough."