Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a four-hour meeting on Thursday night, as part of the United States' efforts to reignite the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In what seems to be an exercise in shuttle diplomacy, Kerry, who is on a two-week swing through the Mideast and Asia, seeks to promote a series of meetings between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, some of which he plans to attend personally. This is Kerry's fifth visit to the region since taking office in February.
While officials in the Prime Minister's Office could not say with certainty whether Netanyahu will heed Kerry's request and meet with Abbas in the coming days or weeks, they hedged that two will meet eventually.
Netanyahu is believed to have made it clear to Washington and to Kerry himself on Thursday that Israel has every reason to believe that Abbas is promoting another gambit meant to see the Palestinian Authority gain recognition by the various bodies at the United Nations as well as other international institution.
The U.N. General Assembly upgraded the PA's status from "observer" to a "non-member observer state" on Nov. 29, 2012 in a vote that was carried 138:9 vote with 41 nations abstaining. UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural body, accepted the PA as a full-fledge member in Oct. 2011.
A senior Israeli source said Washington shares Israel's assessment and that Kerry, who will meet with Abbas in Jordan, on Friday, will push Abbas to shelve any such plans in favor of renewing the peace talks.
The State Department released a statement following Kerry's meeting with Netanyahu, saying the two had a "productive, in-depth and wide-ranging conversation" and that Kerry reiterated his commitment to working with all parties to achieve a two-state solution.
State Department officials said Kerry will continue to try to find common ground between the two sides that would lead to a relaunching of negotiations. On this trip, Kerry is trying to pin down precisely what conditions Abbas and Netanyahu have for resuming talks and perhaps discuss confidence-building measures.
Senior Israeli sources underlined Israel's message on the issue, saying that while holding negotiations was important, their substance was of greater urgency. One sources said Israel would like to see the talks with the Palestinian promote an actual agreement, adding there was "no point in holding talks for the sake of talking."
Israel estimates that Abbas will yield to Washington's pressure and agree to meet with Netanyahu, if only to appease the international community.
The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment on whether Israel is considering releasing any more Palestinian prisoners, or extending any other goodwill gestures to the Palestinian.
Israel's official position on the matter is that no such gestures will be afforded to the PA for merely agreeing to resume the peace talks, but it is possible that Israel will agree to present such moves as gestures afforded to the U.S.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, attempted to downplay Kerry's visit to the region. A source in Abbas' office said that if a breakthrough is achieved during the Palestinian Authority president's meeting with the secretary of state on Friday, the two may meet again next week in Ramallah.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, who serves as secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's Executive Committee said he had little hope that Kerry's visit would prove successful: "It is Israel that is standing in the way of the negotiations. If the Israelis want to talk without accepting our preconditions, then this effort is for nothing.
"We will not resume the negotiations unless our terms are met," he said.
Abbas, however, sounded more optimistic saying, "I still believe in the [peace] process and in Kerry's ability to present a formula that will be acceptable for both parties.
"We said it before and we will say it again -- if the Israeli government believes in the two-states solution based on the 1967 borders than the Palestinians are willing to resume negotiations."
The issue of settlement expansion in Judea and Samaria remains a bone of contention between the U.S. and Israel.
Abbas has repeatedly stated that Israel must agree to a moratorium on settlement expansion prior to resuming the peace talks.
Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demands, saying there should be no preconditions for the negotiations.