Kerry shuttles between both sides in Mideast talks

During the stepped up rounds of diplomacy, Kerry dined with with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then had a two-hour lunch with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and later returned a second time for more talks with Netanyahu.

This is Kerry’s fifth trip to the region to try his hand at helping craft a two-state solution, and his flurry of meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian camps have increased expectations that his latest efforts will yield progress in getting the two sides to reopen negotiations to end their decades-long conflict.

Kerry’s initial plans to talk to both sides just once before traveling on to Brunei for a Southeast Asia security conference have turned instead into hurried shuttle diplomacy at a pace that is testing his aides ability to book the logistics of moving his delegation in tow.

His talks with Israel and the Palestinians head into a third day today. So far, they have amounted to talks about talks — discussions to nail down what exactly each side needs to agree to resume negotiations, which broke down in 2008. There have not been any public statements of progress, yet Kerry’s changing schedule has spawned rumors that progress has been made.

Today, Kerry heads back to Amman for a second meeting with Abbas in two days. Then, instead of continuing his two-week swing through the Mideast and Asia, Kerry is returning to Jerusalem for a third time for additional meetings, the State Department said.

He began his shuttle diplomacy on Thursday night when he made the 90-minute drive from Amman to Jerusalem in a convoy of SUVs. Once in Jerusalem, he had four hours of talks with Netanyahu and a dinner, which included tuna sashimi with roots salad and wasabi cream, dried salted beef and salmon ceviche with chili, mint and pineapple.

On Friday, he had a two-hour-plus lunch with Abbas, and then returned to Jerusalem — this time via helicopter — to meet Netanyahu again. A table in a hotel suite where they talked was filled with trays of hummus, baba ghanoush, spiced pickles, tabouli salad, dates and nuts.

“So soon,” Kerry said with a smile as he shook hands with the Israeli leader for the second time in less than 24 hours.

Kerry spokesmen were tight-lipped about how the talks went, saying only that he had a “detailed and substantive” three-hour conversation with Netanyahu. Israeli officials also have declined to provide details about the talks.

So far, there have been no public signs that the two sides are narrowing their differences. No progress was publicly reported during Kerry’s four earlier visits to the region either.

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 — though his predecessor conducted talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, and the international community views the settlements as illegal or illegitimate.

People who have watched Mideast peace negotiations come and go are skeptical, but hold out hope that a deal can be crafted.

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