JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State John F. Kerry launched his latest round of meetings in the Middle East on Thursday aimed at encouraging Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and discussing negotiations about Iran's controversial nuclear program.
Speaking after a two-hour meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first of three sessions scheduled, Kerry emphasized the U.S. commitment to Israel's security in context of both issues on the agenda.
"I cannot emphasize enough that Israel's security is at the top of the agenda in these negotiations," Kerry said of talks the U.S. and five other major powers are holding with Iran, which recently resulted in an interim accord. The U.S. will do everything to make sure Iran's "plan of weaponization of nuclear capabilities is terminated" in a final agreement, Kerry said.
Responding to Netanyahu's urge for steps to prevent "further erosion of sanctions" against Iran, Kerry promised the fundamental sanctions on oil and banking would remain in place and that the U.S. would be stepping up enforcement efforts.
Israelis and Palestinians expressed low expectations over Kerry's latest efforts to revitalize their talks, which continue to be held regularly but without evident progress.
Palestinian negotiators voice frustration at Israel's ongoing settlement activity, while Israeli officials accuse Palestinian leadership of continued incitement that breeds violence.
The process requires no finger-pointing and needs "not grandstanding but understanding," Netanyahu said Thursday.
Stressing that Israel is ready for peace based on a two-state solution, Netanyahu said his nation would have to be able to "defend itself, by itself" against any threat.
Kerry succeeded this year in renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which resumed in July after being stalled for three years. The parties agreed to negotiate in a set format for an initial period of nine months.
Gradually, the U.S. has increased its role in the talks, though officially denying reports that the Obama administration intended to present its own peace plan within a few months if Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to make progress.
There is little solid information about negotiations since the sides promised to keep discussions confidential. But according to Israeli media, negotiations are deadlocked largely because of Israel's insistence to clinch security arrangements before discussing any future border outline.
Reportedly, the key sticking point concerns the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank and Palestinian rejection of Israel's demands to keep military forces on the ground there.
With no apparent progress in the discussions and an increasingly bad mood, the U.S. has introduced a new player, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who came into the talks with a package of proposals that could allay Israel's security concerns and allow discussions to move forward.
Kerry called Allen "one of the very best military minds in the U.S.," designated by President Obama to play a special role in the peace process, assessing related security challenges and offering possible solutions. Allen provided Netanyahu with "some thoughts" about security challenges, Kerry said, without going into details.
According to Israeli media, Allen was to present Netanyahu with a wide range of military, technological and other possible solutions regarding the Jordan Valley, which Israel maintains is crucial for its security on the ground as well as defending its air space.
Kerry traveled on to Ramallah in the West Bank on Thursday afternoon to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
[Updated, 9:27 a.m. PST Dec. 5: Kerry later said he spent a good amount of the three hours of talks with Abbas discussing the issue of security in the region.
“The goal here for everybody is a viable Palestinian state for the Palestinian people living side by side in peace with the state of Israel and the people of Israel,” he said.
Before the meeting, some Palestinians had express concerns about what would come from Kerry's trip.]
"We are not optimistic, we have no hopes for a breakthrough," former Palestinian minister Qadura Fares told Israeli media before the meeting.
If Kerry was coming with a security proposal it would be "foolish not to look at it," he said, adding that Israel's security concerns weren't the issue. "The issue is the occupation, the settlements and how to end these," he told Israel Radio.
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.