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Kerry meets Israeli PM on sidelines of Davos forum

President of the Swiss Confederation Didier Burkhalter, left, gestures while meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, before a bilateral meeting on the sideline of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott)

DAVOS: US Secretary of State John Kerry met Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he seeks to push forward an intensive Middle East peace drive.

The two men held closed talks on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss mountain town of Davos, ahead of what Washington has billed as a major address by Kerry on the Middle East to the gathering later in the day.

Amid turbulence and upheaval across many Arab countries, including the war in Syria, the US administration's foreign policy in the region has been heavily criticised at home and by key Gulf allies for lacking focus.

But Kerry was expected to hit back at the accusations to "talk about our commitment to engagement in every region of the world and our commitment to diplomacy as a first resort," a senior State Department official said.

"He will make the argument that the myth of disengagement -- and particularly the notion that the US is pulling back from the Middle East -- is not only false, but flies in the face of several major diplomatic initiatives in the region."

Asking not to be named, the official pointed to the interim deal with Iran to rein in its nuclear weapons programme and an agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The US has also been a prime mover behind efforts to bring together the Syrian opposition and the regime to end the three-year war in ongoing talks in Geneva.

Kerry's talks with Netanyahu on Friday were expected to "be pretty lengthy," a US official said, after he met earlier in the week with Israel's top negotiator Tzipi Livni. The Palestinian negotiating team is expected in Washington next week.

The US-brokered peace talks that began in July, after a three-year hiatus in direct negotiations, have faltered over seemingly irreconcilable demands from both sides, failing to bring any glimpse of a final agreement that would end decades of conflict.

Kerry, who has made 11 trips to Israel and the West Bank in his first year in office, is trying to hammer out a framework deal to chart the talks going forward, which would set down guidelines on the toughest issues such as the contours of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Jerusalem for the months ahead.

The two sides have agreed to stay at the negotiating table for nine months, until some time in late April.

But with the deadline looming, there has been mounting criticism by both Israelis and Palestinians as Kerry has pushed them to accept tough compromises.

Netanyahu has amplified calls for Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a demand Palestinian leaders reject, fearing this could preclude the right of return for Palestinian refugees who left or were driven into exile when the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday reiterated comments by Netanyahu in a speech on Thursday, saying Israel was committed to Kerry's peace drive.

"There are difficulties, but neither of us has an alternative in real terms," Peres said at Davos, which he praised for having helped forge Israel's peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. "Israel offers in real terms a sincere peace," he added.

The 90-year-old Nobel peace laureate was later presented with a Swiss cow bell for his long efforts in trying to ring in peace, and he vowed he would wander through the Middle East to keep ringing it.

 

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Summary

US Secretary of State John Kerry met Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he seeks to push forward an intensive Middle East peace drive.

The two men held closed talks on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss mountain town of Davos, ahead of what Washington has billed as a major address by Kerry on the Middle East to the gathering later in the day.

The Palestinian negotiating team is expected in Washington next week.

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday reiterated comments by Netanyahu in a speech on Thursday, saying Israel was committed to Kerry's peace drive.


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