US Secretary of State John Kerry fell short on his fifth trip to the region in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, though he said before leaving on Sunday for Brunei that the goal is within sight and he will continue trying.

“We have made real progress on this trip, and I believe that with a little more work the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach,” a hoarse Kerry said at Ben-Gurion Airport just before takeoff.

He spent some 20 hours over the past three days in six meetings – three with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and three with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman and Ramallah – trying to find a formula that would launch talks. On Saturday night, he held a marathon six-hour meeting with Netanyahu and his team that went until nearly 4 a.m., followed by a Sunday morning meeting with Abbas.

“We started out with very wide gaps, and we have narrowed those considerably,” Kerry said. “We have some specific details and work to pursue, but I am absolutely confident that we are on the right track and that all the parties are working in very good faith in order to get to the right place.”

Both sides were able to avoid being blamed for the stalemate, with Kerry making it a point to say he was impressed by both Netanyahu’s and Abbas’s commitment to find a way to begin the talks.

“I’ve really been impressed by their serious commitment to this task,” he said. “They have spent hours working through language, working through ideas. The effort they and their teams put into this convinces me of their interest in being successful.”

Kerry refused to provide any details either about where progress was made, or what was holding up the restart of talks. He did not speak of any deadline by which the talks needed to begin.

The Palestinians have made clear that they will only enter negotiations with Netanyahu if there is a full Israeli construction freeze in east Jerusalem and the West Bank; Israel accepts the formula of two-states based on the pre-1967 lines as the starting point of talks; and Jerusalem releases some 107 Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli jails since before the Oslo Accords.

Netanyahu says he is willing to start talks without conditions.

Kerry said that while the immediate goal was to restart the talks, the purpose was “not to negotiate for the sake of negotiating.”

The goal was an “enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” based on a two-state solution that he said would strengthen Israel’s security and its future as a Jewish state, and give the Palestinians the chance to fulfill their “legitimate aspirations in a country of their own.”

Careful to avoid creating the impression that his feverish efforts over the past three days were for naught, Kerry said a couple of times that both leaders asked him to continue his work. He also said he would leave a small staff here to continue working with the sides to come up with a formula.

“It will take a little more time to work through some of the details and modalities,” he said. “Both leaders have asked me to continue my efforts to help bring them together.

“I know progress when I see it, and we are making progress,” he added.

“That’s what is important, and that is what will bring me back here.”

Palestinian officials, however, were less upbeat, with officials in Ramallah blaming Israeli “intransigence” for the failure to revive the talks.

The officials said the government’s refusal to stop construction in the settlements and in some neighborhoods in east Jerusalem was one of the reasons behind the failure of Kerry’s latest mission.

“Israel is placing 930 obstacles in the face of John Kerry,” chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said, referring to plans to build 930 housing units in Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood.

“This, at a time when Israel is accusing us of setting conditions for the resumption of the peace talks.”

Erekat spoke to reporters on Sunday shortly after Kerry’s third meeting with Abbas. He said Kerry failed to achieve a breakthrough “to salvage the peace process and revive the peace talks.” He said that “no one benefits from the success of Kerry’s mission as [much as] the Palestinians, and no one loses from its failure as [much as] the Palestinians.”

Erekat said the discussions would continue with the US diplomats who will stay in the region to follow up on Kerry’s efforts.

Senior Fatah officials Azam al-Ahmed and Mahmoud al-Aloul lashed out at the government, holding it fully responsible for the failure of Kerry’s mission. They said Kerry’s inability to achieve a breakthrough showed the Israeli government was not interested in peace.

“This is a government of settlers,” Ahmed said. “This government does not want to establish a Palestinian state, as some of its ministers have openly stated.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile, hinted in comments he made at the outset of Sunday’s cabinet meeting that the Palestinians were piling up conditions to the talks.

“Israel is willing to enter negotiations without delay, and without preconditions,” he said, revealing little about the substance of the Kerry talks. “We are not piling up any obstacle to the renewal of permanent talks and a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians,” he said.

There were elements that Israel would demand during the negotiations, first and foremost when it comes to security issues, he said.

“We will not compromise on security and there will be no agreement that will endanger the security of Israeli citizens,” he said.

The prime minister promised that any agreement with the Palestinians would be brought to a nationwide referendum.

Generally, promises of a referendum are made to neutralize a political crisis by assuring ministers opposed that they need not bolt the government over the issue, because the public will ultimately decide. •

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