Mid-East talks 'within reach' - US secretary of state

US Secretary of State John Kerry: "We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably"

The US secretary of state has said final-status Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations could be "within reach... with a little more work".

John Kerry extended his peace mission on Saturday, cancelling a scheduled trip to Abu Dhabi.

For three days he has shuttled between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said there had been no breakthrough.

He said the latest meeting had been "positive and profound", but "there is still a gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions".

'No impediments'

"I'm pleased to tell you that we have made real progress on this trip," Mr Kerry told reporters in Tel Aviv, before leaving the region.

"And I believe that with a little more work, the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach. We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably."

Analysis

There was an expectation - or perhaps just a hope - that John Kerry would be able to announce something concrete after his fifth visit here. There were even rumours of summit, to be held in Amman at the end of the week.

As he left, the US secretary of state said talks were "within reach", but negotiators said privately that there was much to keep them from easy grasp. And that's despite Mr Kerry having three meetings each with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in as many days.

The release of Palestinian prisoners, and the development of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank remain the key stumbling blocks. Palestinian negotiators, who, in recent days, were playing down talk of an imminent summit agreement, insist that Israel must meet its obligations from previous negotiations; Israel views these demands as preconditions to talks. On these key issues the two sides don't appear to be any closer.

Undeterred, Mr Kerry will be back soon - for his sixth trip - and will attempt to make good on his claim that only a "little more work" is required to start negotiations.

"We made progress in every sector," he went on to say.

He said he was reluctant to leave and was "leaving people behind" to continue to try to secure the basis for discussions, and that both sides had asked him to return to the region soon.

The main stumbling block to talks has been disagreement over the issue of Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, which the Palestinians want frozen as a precondition to talks. However, speaking at the start of Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu insisted that Israel was not blocking a return to negotiations.

"We are not putting up any impediments on the resumption of the permanent talks for a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians," he said in remarks quoted by AFP news agency.

"There are things that we will strongly insist on in the talks themselves, especially security... there will be no agreement that will endanger Israelis' security."

Among other issues, Mr Abbas is said to be pushing Israel to release the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners.

Two decades of on-off negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have failed to produce a permanent settlement, with the latest round of direct negotiations breaking down in 2010.

Mr Kerry is on his fifth visit to the region since taking office in February.

He is offering the Palestinians the incentive of a major investment plan, but it is dependent on progress towards a peace deal.

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