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Kerry says gap between Palestinians and Israelis has "narrowed"

US Secretary of State John Kerry has left the region denying that his shuttle diplomacy has failed. The gap between the Israelis and Palestinians has, he claimed, "narrowed", although his hopes for a breakthrough haven't materialised.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Kerry left the region after he had suggested a plan full of "gestures" by Israel. No details were given but Israeli sources said that they included a settlement freeze and prisoners' release. The Palestinians, meanwhile, were reported to be sticking fast to the precondition that any resumption of the peace talks has to be based on recognition of the pre-June 1967 borders. They claim that the secretary of state has a "deep understanding" of their position.

Kerry's aides discussed the initiative with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Sunday evening. They will present the outcomes of their discussions on Monday to Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who holds the peace talks brief, and other officials.

According to the Times of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to release 60 of the Palestinian prisoners detained since before the Oslo Accords, freeze construction on major settlements and slow down settlement expansion in East Jerusalem. He refuses to sit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the 1967 border issue.

Sources close to the prime minister told the newspaper that it would be "ridiculous" because borders are a "final status issue" that can't be decided upon before negotiations are even resumed. However, he might agree to it if Abbas acknowledges that a future Palestinian state must be demilitarised, its western border must run along the West Bank separation wall, and Israel must maintain military control of the Jordan Valley.

A senior Fatah member close to Abbas criticised Kerry's new plan and called it "futile". Azzam Al-Ahmad told Sky News Arabic TV that Kerry had played an "unfair role" in his mediation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. "Because of the uncertainty in the Arab world, America always blames the Palestinians for any setbacks regarding the peace process," he told Sky.

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