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Kerry's palate gets workout in Mideast peace talks

Friday - 6/28/2013, 6:39pm  ET

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is greeted by Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator, as Kerry arrives for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, not pictured, in Amman, Jordan, on Friday, June 28, 2013. It is Kerry's fifth visit to the region since becoming secretary of state in February to try to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, which broke down in 2008. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

DEB RIECHMANN
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Red tuna and sea bream with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A two-hour lunch of shish tawook and rice with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Back again with Netanyahu, it was hummus and mixed nuts. Secretary of State John Kerry's palate is getting a workout during his stepped-up rounds of Mideast diplomacy.

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 chat 'n chews 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 on Saturday. 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.

On Saturday, 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. Palestinian officials could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts.

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.

"There's no question that Kerry could be successful restarting negotiations," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The real question is whether those negotiations can be successful.

"The problem is twofold: First, the parties don't trust each other, and each fears that the other will start negotiations only to pull out and blame the other for the collapse. Second, there's not much political support in either Israel or the Palestinian Authority for negotiations generally, let alone making any concessions to the other side."

State Department officials say that beyond trying to precisely ascertain their conditions for restarting talks, Kerry wanted to talk with them about the positive outcomes, such as enhanced economic growth, of a two-state solution. At the same time, they said he would remind them of what's at stake if the conflict is left unresolved.

Earlier this month, in a speech to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, Kerry warned of serious consequences if no deal is reached with what he termed the current "moderate" Palestinian leadership. "The failure of the moderate Palestinian leadership could very well invite the rise of the very thing that we want to avoid: the same extremism in the West Bank that we have seen in Gaza or from southern Lebanon," he told the Jewish audience.

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