Kerry sees progress on Israeli-Palestinian framework deal

Arshad Mohammed and Ali Sawafta

By Arshad Mohammed and Ali Sawafta RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians are making progress towards a "framework agreement" to guide their talks on a formal peace deal but still have some way to go, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday. Speaking after extensive, separate talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, Kerry sounded somewhat hopeful about the chances of ending the conflict, despite misgivings voiced recently by both sides and a lack of tangible signs of movement. On his 10th visit to the region in a year, Kerry is trying to establish what U.S. officials call a "framework" of general guidelines for an accord, with details to be filled in later. "I am confident that the talks we have had in the last two days have already fleshed out and even resolved certain kinds of issues and presented new opportunities for others," he said after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We are not there yet, but we are making progress," Kerry told reporters in Ramallah, seat of Abbas' government. Since arriving in the region on Thursday, Kerry has spent about eight hours in talks with Abbas and, after a roughly four-hour and 40-minute session in Jerusalem on Saturday night, more than 12 hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed last July after a three-year halt, with Kerry leading the push despite widespread skepticism about a successful outcome. Kerry said he would fly to Jordan and Saudi Arabia on Sunday to discuss with their rulers the peace talks, which the United States hopes will lead to an agreement within nine months. CORE ISSUES Broad Arab support is viewed as crucial if the Palestinians are to make the compromises likely to prove necessary to strike a peace deal with Israel. Kerry also said he plans to meet a group of Arab foreign ministers next weekend. On arrival in Jerusalem on Thursday, Kerry said the framework he was trying to build would aim to address all of the conflict's core issues, including borders, security, the future of Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem. Both sides have expressed doubts about his efforts. On Saturday Israel's Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu confidant, questioned Abbas's intentions. "We have great doubt about Abu Mazen's (Abbas) willingness to reach an agreement," he told a town hall meeting. "We see the strong incitement and anti-Semitism of the Palestinian Authority led by (Abbas) as a main obstacle on the road to an agreement." Palestinian protesters in Ramallah on Friday condemned the U.S. Secretary of State's efforts, chanting "Kerry, you coward, there's no place for you in Palestine!" One woman angrily wagged her finger at Kerry's motorcade as it swept through the city on Saturday afternoon. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged Israel to stop building Jewish settlements on occupied land the Palestinians want for a state and to halt house demolitions, which rights groups view as a form of collective punishment. But Erekat, standing beside Kerry in Ramallah, also made a case for peace directly to the Palestinians and he suggested that Kerry could return to the region later this month. "No one benefits more from the success of Secretary Kerry's efforts than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more (from) failure than Palestinians," he said. (Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Nidal Al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Gareth Jones and Rosalind Russell)