JERUSALEM: Washington's deadline for reaching a Mideast peace deal arrived Tuesday with no breakthrough and US Secretary of State John Kerry mired in a row over allegations that he said Israel risks becoming an "apartheid state".
After more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, with the initial aim of brokering a deal by April 29, Washington's patience appeared to be growing thin as both Israel and the Palestinians moved to distance themselves from the crisis-hit talks.
Kerry on Monday vehemently denied calling Israel an apartheid state, as a furore grew in the Jewish state over comments the top US diplomat reportedly made during a private meeting.
"I do not believe, not have I ever stated, publicly or privately that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one," Kerry said in a strong statement after calls for him to resign or at least apologise for the alleged comments, which appeared on US online news site The Daily Beast.
But Kerry, who has seen his dogged efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians collapse, did suggest that he had used a poor choice of words during his speech Friday to international political experts at the Trilateral Commission.
Kerry insisted that although the peace process was at a point of "confrontation and hiatus", it was not dead -- yet.
But both the Palestinians and the Israelis appear to have drawn their own conclusions about the life expectancy of the US-led negotiations, which have made no visible progress since they began nine months ago.
Last week, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip announced a surprise unity deal aimed at ending years of occasionally violent rivalry.
Israel denounced the deal as a death blow to peace hopes and said it would not negotiate with any government backed by Hamas, the Islamist movement whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Washington called the deal "unhelpful".
Under the agreement, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas will work to establish a new unity government of political independents headed by president Mahmud Abbas, whose Fatah party dominates the PLO.
Abbas has said the new government will recognise Israel, as well as renouncing violence and abiding by existing agreements, in line with key principles set out by the Mideast peacemaking Quartet.
But Netanyahu has ruled out any negotiation with the new government unless Hamas gives up its vision of destroying Israel.
Kerry, speaking at a closed-door meeting of international experts, reportedly said that if Israel didn't seize the opportunity to make peace soon, it risked becoming an "apartheid state" with second-class citizens.
"Apartheid" refers to South Africa's 1948-1994 oppressive and racially segregated social system.
The Daily Beast website said it had been given a recording of Kerry's speech, which led one Republican senator to call for his resignation.
Kerry has "repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to countenance a world in which Israel is made a pariah", said Senator Ted Cruz.
Kerry should offer his resignation and President Barack Obama should accept it, Cruz added, "before any more harm is done to our national security interests and our critical alliance with the state of Israel".
Israeli Transport Minister Israel Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party, expressed outrage at Kerry's reported comments.
"Kerry, shame on you. There are some words you cannot use," he wrote on his Facebook page.
"On this day of national commemoration of the Holocaust, we have the US secretary of state describing us as an apartheid state -- us, the state which is subjected to threats of destruction."
Meanwhile, in remarks in Gaza on Monday, Mussa Abu Marzuk, a Cairo-based top Hamas leader, reaffirmed that the unity government would "not be political".
He said its mandate would be primarily to prepare for elections within six months, restructuring the security services and overseeing the reconstruction of the battered Gaza Strip.
Tzahi Hanegbi, an MP close to Netanyahu, told army radio that Israel should "wait to understand the meaning" of the Palestinian unity deal.
"Israel must act intelligently and with restraint, and not play into the Palestinians' hands by helping them out of the trap into which they have fallen," he said.
Israel and Washington are reportedly at odds over the proposed new Palestinian government, with US officials waiting to see whether it will embrace the Quartet's principles.