Kerry prolongs Mideast trip amid hopes of breakthrough

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jordan.

AMMAN, Jordan - US Secretary of State John Kerry has prolonged his Middle East visit, an official said Thursday, amid signs of progress in his efforts to kickstart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Secretary Kerry will remain in Amman on Thursday night to determine if there is additional work that requires his presence before he returns to the United States," the State Department official said.

In a further sign of a possible breakthrough in Kerry's intense diplomatic efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after a three-year break, Israeli army radio said Thursday the military is preparing to lift some restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

"It appears that in the next few days the future of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be determined," army radio's reporter for the Palestinian territories reported.

"In the light of security assessments, two roads in the territories are expected shortly to be opened to Palestinian traffic; one north of Ramallah and one close to Beit Haggai," he added, referring to a settlement near the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

The radio quoted the military spokesman's office as saying that the plans were a gesture for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and not linked to peace efforts.

The gestures come as Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas prepared to meet senior members of his Palestine Liberation Organisation in the West Bank city of Ramallah later on Thursday to brief them on his meetings in Jordan with Kerry, a Palestinian official said.

Kerry, who was due to end his visit to Jordan on Thursday, was awaiting the outcome of that meeting before deciding his next step, a US official indicated.

Following his meetings with Abbas and after outlining his latest peace proposals to Arab League officials in Amman, Kerry reported a narrowing of the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Through hard and deliberate, patient work, and most importantly through quiet work, we have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly," the top US diplomat told reporters.

"We continue to get closer and I continue to be hopeful that the two sides will come to sit at the same table," he added, standing alongside his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh.

The US envoy, who has made the resumption of Middle East peace talks a priority since he took office on February 1, acknowledged that differences remained between the two sides, despite his dogged shuttle diplomacy which saw him hold hours of talks with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his visit last month.

"There are still some elements and some language that needs to be agreed upon and worked out. This is normal, and I'm not going to detail specifics," he said.

The Palestinians insist that they will not return to the negotiating table until Israel agrees to accept as a baseline the lines that existed before the 1967 Middle East war, when it occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

They say Israel needs to freeze all settlement construction in the occupied lands, including in east Jerusalem, which it annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel rejects such "preconditions".

As yet it is understood there is no Israeli agreement to meet demands for either a settlement freeze or a prisoner release.

A team of experts has been drawing up a plan to attract some US$4 billion (S$5.03 billion) in private investment to shore up the struggling Palestinian economy, which Kerry repeated could boost GDP by 50 per cent over three years.

A Palestinian official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP things were moving and Kerry was "determined" to announce a resumption of talks before he leaves the region.

But the atmosphere has been clouded by an EU decision barring any investment in Jewish settlement projects which has incensed Israel.

In a phone call with Kerry on Wednesday, Netanyahu said the EU move was "damaging efforts to restart the talks" with the Palestinians, an Israeli official said.

There are no immediate plans for Kerry to visit Israel and meet Netanyahu.