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Mideast peace talks hit snag over Jewish settlement construction

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to have the courage to take risks in Mideast peace talks. But the two sides have already run into difficulties over Jewish settlements.

During a speech commemorating slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin on Tuesday, Secretary of State Kerry said that although the latest round of peace negotiations faced difficulties, a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians was still possible.

“I come here without any illusions about the difficulties, but I come here determined to work,” Kerry said after arriving in Israel, ahead of Wednesday talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We believe this is something that is possible and that it's good for all and can be achieved,” the US secretary of state said.

Kerry held a speech at Tel Aviv square memorializing Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli right-wing nationalist for seeking a peace deal with Palestinians.

“We are now 18 years since that moment and it is clear that we need voices ready to sing a song of peace, loudly, with courage, and with the same determination Prime Minister Rabin showed with his quest for peace,” Kerry said.

"He dared to take the risks for peace, not just because it was important to take the risks, but that it was vital to secure the future of Israel and the region," he continued.

Settlements remain sticking point

Kerry successfully lobbied Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table last July, after a three year pause. The Palestinians had broken off talks in 2010 in protest against Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

According to Kerry's roadmap, a final peace accord should be completed in nine months. But the two sides have already run into difficulties over Jewish settlements. Israel recently announced plans to build nearly 2,000 new settler homes in the West Bank.

“What's required is a firm American position on Israel's provocations,” said Nabil Abu Rdeineh, spokesman for President Abbas. “Israel is continuing its policy of putting obstacles in front of the peace process - every time Kerry comes to the region they announce more settlements.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that continued settlement construction was part of a deal, in which Israel would release 104 Palestinian prisoners. Half of those prisoners have already been set free.

“If they can't even...stand beside and behind the agreement that we had, that we release prisoners but we continue building, then how can I see that they'll actually stand by the larger issues?” Netanyahu told the Israel-based i24 television news channel.

slk/jr (AFP, Reuters)