Kerry seeks to allay fears on Mideast deal

JERUSALEM- US Secretary of State John Kerry held intense talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Friday, seeking to overcome their concerns about a framework to guide negotiations towards a peace deal.

American officials have privately said they believe the direct talks, resumed in July after a three-year hiatus, have reached a new phase as a late April deadline for an accord looms, but are struggling to overcome fierce opposition from both sides.

They said it was unlikely that agreement on a framework accord would be reached this week, conceding it would take more time.

Kerry met with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas late Friday and was due to meet him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again on Saturday for their third round of talks in as many days.

Veteran US Senator John McCain, who is also visiting Israel with a congressional delegation, said Netanyahu had Friday voiced deep concerns in separate "detailed" discussions about the proposals being put forward by Kerry.

"Netanyahu has serious, serious concerns about the plan as has been presented to him, whether it be on the ability of Israel to defend its borders or the reliability of a Palestinian state and their intentions," McCain said in Jerusalem.

Israelis were also particularly concerned about "their overall security, whether it be boundaries, whether it be areas under Palestinian control," he added.

After three hours of talks Friday with Netanyahu following an eight-hour discussion and dinner on Thursday, Kerry travelled to the West Bank to meet with Abbas.

Top Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo was Thursday unenthusiastic about the proposed framework agreement, saying it "limits Palestinian sovereignty" on the West Bank.

But when Kerry was asked if he was gaining any traction in the talks as he met with Abbas in his Ramallah headquarters, he replied: "Every day (is) progress."

Netanyahu on Thursday had been pessimistic, launching a scathing attack on Abbas.

"I know that you're committed to peace, I know that I'm committed to peace. But unfortunately given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders, there's growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace," he said.

Referring to Israel's release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners as part of the talks, Netanyahu said Abbas had "embraced terrorists as heroes. To glorify the murderers of innocent women and men as heroes is an outrage".

Kerry on Thursday vowed the United States was committed to working with both sides "to narrow the differences on a framework that will provide the agreed guidelines for permanent status negotiations".

"This will take time and it will take compromise from both sides," he warned.

US officials have refused to release any details about the framework, but hope to conclude it soon.

The core issues

It has also not yet been decided whether the document will be made public, but it is unlikely to be signed by both sides.

Kerry stressed the framework was building on ideas from both sides over five months of talks, and would set out the agreements and disagreements on the core issues.

These include the contours of a future Palestinian state, refugees, the fate of Jerusalem, security, "mutual recognition and the end of conflict and of all claims," said Kerry.

The Palestinians want borders based on the 1967 lines of before the Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, including now annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

But Israel wants to retain existing settlements it has built inside occupied Palestinian territory since then.

Israel also wants to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, where the West Bank borders Jordan.

The Palestinians have insisted there be no Israeli troops in their future state, but are open to the idea of an international force to guarantee security.

Kerry's visit also came as Israeli former prime minister Ariel Sharon's health was deteriorating, according to the hospital where he has been comatose for eight years.