Kerry has flurry of meetings in Mideast

Israeli, Palestinian leaders may be closer to peace talks

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JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in breakneck shuttle diplomacy to coax Israel and the Palestinians back into peace talks, is flying to the West Bank today to have a third meeting in as many days with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials have declined to disclose details of the past three days of closed-door meetings, but Kerry’s decision to fly from Jerusalem to Ramallah, West Bank, to see Abbas again before he leaves the region was an indication that the secretary believes there is a chance of bringing the two sides together.

“Working hard” is all Kerry would say when a reporter asked him whether progress was being made.

Despite the lack of readouts, there are several clues that the meetings have been more than routine chats.

Clues of progress

Most of Kerry’s meetings have lasted at least two hours and several of them were much longer. His initial dinner meeting Thursday night with Netanyahu was clocked at four and the one Saturday night with the Israelis that started around 9 p.m. in a hotel suite was still going on at 2:30 a.m. today.

Legal, military and other officials accompanied Netanyahu at the meeting, perhaps an indication that discussions had reached a more detailed level.

And just the sheer number of meetings since Thursday — three with Netanyahu and soon-to-be three with Abbas — could indicate that the two sides are at least interested in trying to find a way back to the negotiating table.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry would travel to Ramallah today to meet Abbas. The U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the negotiations by name.

The meeting, however, will further squeeze Kerry’s itinerary. He’s scheduled to be at a Southeast Asia security conference on Monday and Tuesday in Brunei. On the sidelines of the conference, Kerry is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an exchange that likely will focus on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Kerry also is to have a trilateral discussion with Japanese and South Korean officials that likely will include the topic of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

For now, however, Kerry has his head in the Middle East. Except for quick flights to meetings in Amman, Kerry mostly has been holed up on the upper floors of a hotel near Jerusalem’s Old City engaged in deep, serious conversations about the decades-old conflict.

Old arguing points

There is deep skepticism that Kerry can get the two sides to agree on a two-state solution. It’s something that has eluded presidents and diplomats for years. But the flurry of meetings has heightened expectations that the two sides can be persuaded to restart talks, which broke down in 2008.

So far, there have been no public signs that the two sides are narrowing their differences.

In the past, Abbas has said he won’t negotiate unless Israel stops building settlements on war-won lands or accepts its 1967 lines — before the capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in a Mideast war that year — as a starting point for border talks. The Palestinians claim all three areas for their future state.

Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demands, saying there should be no pre-conditions for talks.

Abbas made significant progress with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in talks in 2007 and 2008, but believes there is little point in negotiating with the current Israeli leader.

Netanyahu has adopted much tougher starting positions than Olmert, refusing to recognize Israel’s pre-1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks and saying east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital, is off the table. Abbas and his aides suspect Netanyahu wants to resume talks for the sake of negotiating and creating a diplomatic shield for Israel, not in order to reach an agreement.