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Sunday, October 23, 2016

(AFP) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday he hoped to help achieve a peace agreement encompassing Israeli security needs and Palestinian sovereignty, as he wrapped up his regional visit.

But Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas dampened hopes by rejecting U.S. proposals for Israel to keep a military presence in a future Palestinian state.

“We are working on an approach that both guarantees Israel’s security and fully respects Palestinian sovereignty,” Kerry told reporters in Tel Aviv before boarding a plane to Vietnam.

Kerry insisted the goal remained for the sides “to reach a final status agreement – not an interim agreement”, and said Israel will release as planned a new group of Palestinian prisoners on December 29.

“Both parties remain committed to fulfilling their obligations to stay at the table and negotiate hard during the nine-month period that we set for that” when talks were launched at the end of July, said Kerry.

On Friday morning, Kerry met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what the Israeli premier described as a discussion on how to “advance our goals of peace and security.”

Kerry, who completed his second visit to the region within a week, said that U.S. military expert General John Allen outlined in talks with Abbas a security plan for the West Bank and Israel, which could be implemented following a peace accord.

But Abbas rejected U.S. proposals for Israel to keep a military presence in a future Palestinian state along its strategic border with Jordan, a source close to the Palestinian president told AFP.

“President Abbas has rejected the ideas presented by the secretary of state,” the Palestinian source said earlier Friday, a day after Kerry met Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Abbas also handed Kerry a letter laying down “Palestinian red lines”, the source added, singling out “the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state”.

Abbas “rejected the ideas on security because there is not a third party”.

This refers to a plan by former U.S. national security adviser James Jones under which a third party would deploy along the Palestinian-Jordanian border.

Israeli and Arab media reports say the plan envisaged by Washington would see Israel maintain a military presence on the border after a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

According to pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, the plan also includes the deployment of early warning stations on the highest point in the West Bank, an Israeli right to deny entry to anyone through the Jordan Valley border crossing and joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols in the area.

An international force would be acceptable to the Palestinians, but Israel opposes such a solution.

Israel has always insisted that a continued military presence on the frontier would be vital for its security for some 10-15 years after Palestinian statehood.

Former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland wrote on Thursday in the Yediot Aharonot daily that Israel saw a potential threat as not coming necessarily from the Palestinians, but from “other enemies” in the region.

“Israel insists on having contiguous control along the Jordan River, and it seems like the Americans accept this,” he wrote, saying Israel needed “a strip five kilometres (three miles) wide” to ensure its safety.

It was Kerry’s ninth trip to Israel and the West Bank since March — and his second in less than a week.

Nine-month direct talks were launched between the sides by Kerry in July, and last week he said “we are closer than we have been in years” to reaching a deal.

On Friday Kerry also said that Israel will free a new group of Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to the U.S.-backed peace process.

“The next tranche of the (release of Palestinian) prisoners is due to take place on the 29th of December, and it will take place then,” he said.

Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners and has already released 52 in two separate batches. The third release of another 26 inmates is expected later this month and the final group is to be freed in March 2014.

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