AMMAN, Jordan – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday won Arab League backing for his effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, raising hopes for a resumption in the stalled negotiations in the near future. Kerry himself said significant progress had been made in narrowing gaps between the two sides but declined to elaborate.
On his sixth trip to the Middle East in as many months as America's top diplomat, Kerry met in Jordan with representatives of the Arab League and nine of its members that support a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia.
In a statement released after the meeting, the Arab delegates said they supported Kerry's initiative.
"The Arab delegates believe Kerry's ideas proposed to the committee today constitute a good ground and suitable environment for restarting the negotiations, especially the new and important political, economic and security elements," the statement said.
The statement was significant because could give Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas the political cover he would need to sell a return to negotiations to a skeptical Palestinian public. Kerry met with Abbas in Amman on Wednesday afternoon after they shared a five hour dinner later Monday night.
At a Wednesday news conference after the Arab League and Abbas meetings, Kerry said that the Israelis and Palestinians were narrowing gaps that have prevented them from restarting talks.
"When this process started several months ago, there were very wide gaps very significant gaps between the two sides," he said. "Through hard and deliberate, patient work, and most importantly through quiet work we have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly."
"We continue to get closer and I continue to remain hopeful that the sides will soon be able to come to sit at the same table," he said. "There are still some elements, some language that needs to be agreed upon and worked out. This is normal."
Kerry refused to discuss details of the proposals he laid out to the Arab officials or how the gap with the Israelis had narrowed.
Despite Kerry optimistic message, a more muted response on his efforts came from Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Ishtayeh, who said Abbas will be holding a meeting of the PLO leadership to discuss Kerry's ideas.
"We are keen to see Kerry's efforts work, but so far there are no promising signs from the Israeli side," Ishtayeh said.
In addition to the peace process, Kerry was updating the Arabs on U.S. support for the Syrian opposition and attempts to convene an international conference to establish a transition government there, as well as Washington's position on Egypt's political turmoil.
It remained unclear whether Kerry would meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or any of his top aides on his trip. Israel is not currently on Kerry's itinerary, although officials said that could change.
Abbas has refused to negotiate unless Israel halts all construction in West Bank settlements. Israel has refused, saying negotiations should resume without conditions. Kerry has offered the Palestinians a package of economic incentives to restart the talks.
Kerry has spent hours with Abbas and Netanyahu trying to set the stage for a return to peace talks that foundered and collapsed in 2008. Kerry insists progress has been made but there have been few, if any, discernible signs that the two sides are getting closer to agreeing to discuss the major issues that divide them.
Kerry said on that he wanted to see a Syrian refugee camp, and it appeared likely that if such a visit is arranged, it would happen Thursday before he is scheduled to return to the United States. Judeh said Kerry had expressed concern about the economic impact the humanitarian crisis in Syria has had in Jordan, which hosts more than a half million displaced Syrians.
Should the visit materialize, it would be the first by an Obama administration Cabinet-level figure to Syrian refugees, some of whom have complained about a lack of U.S. support. Syrian rebels have also complained that they are not receiving promised military assistance from Washington.