JERUSALEM — The United States and Israel raised hopes Thursday for a restart of the Middle East peace process, despite little tangible progress so far from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's two-month-old effort to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
As they met in Jerusalem, Kerry praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the "seriousness" with which he is looking at ways to revitalize peace hopes. Kerry expressed optimism without outlining any concrete strategy for ending a stalemate between the two sides that has seen them hardly negotiate one-on-one at all over the last 4 1/2 years.
"I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism, in some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it," Kerry told reporters. "There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient – but detailed and tenacious – that we can lay on a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people and certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace."
"That's what we're working towards," said Kerry, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later Thursday in Ramallah.
Netanyahu said his conversation with the top American diplomat would touch on mutual concerns about Iran and Syria. "But above all," he said, "what we want to do is restart the peace talks with the Palestinians."
"It's something I want, it's something you want," Netanyahu told Kerry. "It's something I hope the Palestinians want as well and we ought to be successful for a simple reason: When there's a will, we'll find a way."
The visit, Kerry's fourth trip to the Jewish state since taking office as secretary of state in February, coincides with deepening pessimism from Palestinian officials about the new peace push. They are planning to resume their campaign of seeking membership in key international organizations as early as next month in a bid to put pressure on Israel into offering some concessions.
Without major U.S. pressure on Israel, the outlook seems bleak. The most immediate divide concerns the issue of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – lands that Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war and which the Palestinians hope to include in their state.
Kerry brought "nothing new" to his discussions with Abbas, lamented one Palestinian official familiar with the talks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the private meetings, said Palestinian expectations remain low because they see Kerry "trying to accommodate the Israelis, not pressure the Israelis."
While Palestinians have praised Kerry's efforts, they say there has been little progress ahead of what they believe to be a June 7 deadline for action. They are already beginning work on a "day-after" strategy.
And they say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it increasingly difficult to partition the land between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel also captured the Gaza Strip in 1967, though it withdrew from the territory in 2005.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction and accept the pre-1967 frontiers as the baselines of a future border. While previous Israeli leaders have used the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he took a tough line against the settlements and prodded Israel into a partial construction freeze. But Israel refused to extend the freeze, and a short-lived round of negotiations in 2010 quickly collapsed. Obama similarly tried unsuccessfully to press Israel into accepting the 1967 lines as a baseline for talks.
Fed up with the impasse and disillusioned with Obama, the Palestinians last fall won recognition from the U.N. General Assembly as a nonmember state, an upgraded diplomatic status that gives them access to key U.N. bodies. The U.S. was one of just eight countries that sided with Israel in opposing the bid.
Israel fears the Palestinians will now seek membership in international agencies to promote an anti-Israel agenda. Its biggest concern is that the Palestinians will try to join the International Criminal Court and try to press war crimes charges against Israel.
Israel's chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said Thursday that Israel must push forward with peace efforts, in a message directed mainly to hardliners in her own country.
"The Palestinian issue isn't something that will disappear and it is not an issue where someone can say, `There are more worrying things, so let's not deal with it,'" she told Israel Radio.
"I still think that the freeze of the past four years is bad," she said, speaking in Hebrew. "As time elapses, the ability to ignite the negotiations gets more problematic. The price that Israel pays both in the short and long-term are higher. And therefore the freeze does not serve those that want to reach an agreement."
Livni said the Israeli-Palestinian standoff only serves those who believe in mantras like "here we are holding on to the land, here we built another house, here we prevented an agreement."
"This isn't me and I don't believe it represents the mainstream or the basic position of the Israeli public," she said. "And I believe I represent the Israeli national and security interests in the long-term."
Kerry's plan remains opaque, even to officials in the Obama administration.
One element will clearly focus on improving the Palestinian economy by spurring private investment. He also recently persuaded the 22-member Arab League to renew a decade-old peace offer to Israel, with new incentives aimed at making it more attractive to Israel.
But he has yet to wrest any clear overture from the Israelis.
Meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday evening, Kerry said the moment was critical "for the region, and particularly for Israel and for Palestine."
"There is an opportunity, but for many reasons it's not on the tip of everybody's tongue," he said. "The people in Israel aren't waking up every day and wondering if tomorrow (there will) be peace because there is a sense of security, and a sense of accomplishment and a sense of prosperity.
"But I think if you look over the horizon," he added, "one can see the challenges. And I think that the importance of trying to resolve this in this moment, where there is willingness for people to look for a way, can't be overstated."
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.