Kerry leaves Israel with hopes, but few results

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JERUSALEM — Wrapping up his first solo visit in a renewed Obama administration campaign to restart peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Tuesday with few signs of progress and a vow to keep trying.

After talks Monday and Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry expressed optimism, calling the discussions productive and constructive. His brief trip followed last month's three-day visit by President Barack Obama.

"This effort is not just about getting the parties back into direct negotiations," Kerry said. "It's about getting everybody in the best position to succeed."

He said he was leaving Israel with "homework" and would return to the region to continue the process and the talks. "Doing it right is more important than doing it quickly," he said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials say Kerry is expected to make monthly trips to the region, marking a shift by the Obama administration, which in 2010 largely shelved its effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

For now, Kerry is focusing on goodwill gestures designed to bridge tensions and steps to improve the West Bank economy. He spoke with both sides about extending Palestinian control over more parts of the West Bank.

But there were few signs that either side was budging from the entrenched positions they have held for nearly four years.

Palestinians are refusing to return to the negotiating table until Israel halts settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It wants Israel to submit a draft map of what land it is willing to release to a Palestinian state.

Israel is refusing to halt settlement construction or provide maps, saying such issues should be decided at the negotiating table.

"Foremost in our minds (are) the questions of recognition and security," Netanyahu said Tuesday. His government has insisted that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" and allow an Israeli military presence along the Jordan Valley.

Conservative members of his coalition are warning Netanyahu against making concessions to Palestinians.

"I don't understand the approach that we need to pay just for the privilege of the Palestinians agreeing to sit across the table from us and talk," said Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin.

Palestinians expressed their own skepticism.

"(Kerry) believes that an accumulation of trips will eventually lead to something," said former government spokesman Ghassan Khatib, an analyst at Birzeit University. "All this does not answer the question: What next? And as a result, no one is expecting breakthroughs."