US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel's government on Friday to prevent further settlement construction where possible to help revitalize Middle East peace hopes, but stressed that the Jewish state and Palestinians alike should remain focused on the larger goal of restarting direct negotiations.
Explaining part of the strategy of his now 2-month-old peace initiative, Kerry said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government can stop only some of the settlements being built in lands contested by the Israelis and Palestinians - and in those cases it should act.
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Unlike in previous American-led mediation efforts, however, he stopped short of demanding a full settlement freeze and said the contentious issue could better be handled through a quick restart of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv after two days of talks in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Kerry urged both sides to refrain from provocative actions "that take us backwards" and said they should focus instead on progress towards peace talks.
Kerry with Netanyahu, Steinitz and Ya'alon (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)
"We are reaching the time (where) leaders need to make hard decisions," Kerry said following separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas .
He noted the talks were "very productive".
Kerry said it was important not to let settlements stand in the way of talks that could finally set borders as part of a peace agreement. Then, he said, the issue would be resolved because each side would have clear boundaries for their two states.
He stressed the importance of security for Israel and borders for Palestinians adding that those two goals can only be achieved through direct talks.
He said the US does not believe setting deadlines was helpful noting that President Barack Obama had said he would decided whether the sides are serious in their quest for peace after examining the issue over a period of several months.
Despite the continued difficulties in even getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Kerry insisted he believed peace is possible.
Earlier Friday, he met Netanyahu for the second time in as many days and then spoke with outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
On Thursday, Kerry praised Netanyahu for the "seriousness" with which he is looking at ways to revitalize peace hopes.
Kerry called on both Netanyahu and Abbas to show their leadership and said the two sides must be given two weeks to consider a resumption of direct negotiations.
The US secretary of state also addressed the Iranian issue criticizing Iran's guardian council for eliminating that hundreds of presidential candidates and, in his view, standing in the way of legitimate, representative democracy.
Kerry says it is hardly a free, fair and transparent process when an unelected body chooses some candidates "solely on who represents the regime's interests."
He says the alternative, who represents the will of the Iranian people, should guide the elections.
Iran's Guardian Council has disqualified scores of candidates, including former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, dealing a demoralizing blow to pro-reform groups.
AP and Reuters contributed to this report
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