John Kerry leaves Mideast citing ‘progress.’ Why sides are mum on how much.

John Kerry left top aides behind in the Mideast to underscore that his efforts to secure a resumption of Israeli-Palestinians talks had made 'real progress.' He vowed to return soon.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (r.), with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (l.), makes a short statement to the media after their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, on Sunday, June 30, 2013.

Secretary of State John Kerry concluded a weekend of shuttle diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians without reaching a deal to resume negotiations on a two-state peace deal.

But Secretary Kerry also made a point as he left Israel Sunday of announcing that he was leaving behind several of his top Middle East aides – a gesture meant to underscore his assertion that the two sides may need a little more time but have made “real progress” toward restarting face-to-face talks.

And he vowed to return soon – on what would be the sixth trip to the region in his short tenure as the Obama administration’s top diplomat – saying that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas requested that he come back.

“I wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t some hope and possibility in that,” he said.

Kerry is determined not to lose the momentum he seems certain was created by more than a dozen hours of talks he held with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders – some stretching well into early-morning hours.

Yet while both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas appeared to appreciate the herculean effort Kerry is making to get them back to talks, it remains unclear if the secretary of State’s upbeat stance is based on meaningful movement in overcoming the obstacles that have essentially kept the two sides apart since 2010 (aides to the two leaders met sporadically into last year).

One reason for the lack of clarity about whether or not there is “real progress” toward talks is that all three parties – the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans – have largely respected a common decision not to go public with details of the weekend discussions.

“We have all agreed that the best way to serve this effort is not to be floating ideas or possibilities out there for everybody to tear apart and evaluate and analyze,” Kerry said in a statement.

But the long-held differences that have separated the two sides appear to be the same ones that, in some form or another, are still keeping a return to talks out of reach.

Netanyahu has said for many months that he is ready to return to the negotiating table “without preconditions” – in other words, without making any initial compromises that would suggest he is serious this time about making progress toward a viable two-state solution, Palestinians say. For his part, Abbas has insisted that any return to talks be preceded by an Israeli settlement freeze, a release of Palestinian prisoners, and an agreement that the negotiating of final borders will proceed based largely on borders that existed between the two sides before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Instead of offering a settlement freeze and prisoner releases as a gesture to get talks going, Netanyahu is proposing to take limited and phased-in steps in those areas as – and if – talks progress, some Israeli analysts say. And some Palestinian officials are suggesting that such an approach might be acceptable by saying after Kerry’s marathon diplomacy that, while differences remain, progress has been made.

The US side has buttressed Kerry’s efforts by offering enticements to the two sides: a multibillion-dollar economic development plan to the Palestinians, and enhanced security guarantees to the Israelis. Kerry’s plan also has the additional draw for the Israelis of including prospects for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace based on the Arab peace initiative of 2002.

Kerry was reluctant as he left Israel to specify when he might return to the region or when talks might be able to resume, saying it would be a “big mistake” to “get stuck with artificial deadlines.”

On the other hand, Kerry has suggested that he wants to see an agreement on relaunching negotiations before the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September.

That might seem like an “artificial deadline” of the variety Kerry insists he wants to avoid.

But Kerry is no doubt mindful that in recent years the UN General Assembly has focused global attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that, in the view of many regional analysts, have separated the two sides further and dimmed prospects for a return to peace talks.

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