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Kerry heads to Mideast with peace talks on agenda

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on July 10, 2013 in Washington
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on July 10, 2013 in Washington. Kerry is returning to Jordan Monday on his sixth trip to the region as he seeks to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks.

US Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Jordan Monday on his sixth trip to the region as he tries to push Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks.

In Amman, Kerry will meet a delegation from the Arab League and Jordanian leaders, a top US official said.

Since he took office on February 1, the US top diplomat has made a search for a long-elusive Middle East peace deal one of the top priorities of his tenure.

But US officials were quick to downplay hopes that his return to the region signalled that an announcement was pending on a resumption of the talks, which have stalled since September 2010.

They even could not immediately confirm whether he would meet with top Palestinian or Israeli leaders.

A Palestinian official told AFP that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will meet Kerry in Jordan.

"It is expected that (Palestinian) president Abbas and Kerry will meet in Amman," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity. "We are waiting to see what new ideas Kerry will bring with him after his last tour of the region," he added.

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the full details of the trip were not yet finalized.

"Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Amman, Jordan, departing this afternoon," Psaki told reporters.

He would meet on Wednesday with Jordanian leaders, including King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, as well as Arab League officials to "provide an update on Middle East peace," she said.

They would also discuss the political upheaval in Egypt and the conflict in Syria, and it was expected that Egypt, a key member of the Arab League, would send someone to the talks in Amman.

But another US official said it was not known who would represent the interim Egyptian government following the July 3 ouster of Mohamed Morsi.

Psaki downplayed expectations of any announcement of a resumption of talks, but she stressed: "The secretary would not be going back to the region if he did not feel there was an opportunity to keep making steps forward."

Last month the top US diplomat spent four days locked in intensive shuttle diplomacy seeking to coax the two sides to end a nearly three-year stalemate, and said "with a little more work, the start of final status negotiations could be within reach."

He left behind a team of top US officials who have been working to remove the last hurdles to fresh talks.

"They wouldn't be there continuing those conversations if the secretary didn't feel there was a path forward, so that's why they've been on the ground," a senior US official told reporters on a conference call, asking to remain anonymous.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, director of J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace American lobby group told AFP he was "hopeful of a positive surprise."

"We are hopeful that the secretary's efforts that he has put in over the last three months are on the verge of producing some results in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

He said both sides "felt the time was right" to return to the talks and "are very wary of the potential cost of failure."

Despite the difficulties presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's divided cabinet, Ben-Ami pointed to the growing consensus among elite Israelis, including business leaders and top security officials, calling for a peace deal.

A failure to negotiate will only lead to a growing isolation for Israel and a deterioration of the Palestinian situation which could spark a third intifada, he warned.

Abbas is pushing Israel to freeze all settlement building activity, while Netanyahu has urged talks without "preconditions", instead considering "goodwill gestures" such as the release of prisoners or a partial freeze on settlements.

The former head of Israel's internal security service Shin Bet, Yuval Diksin, warned in an editorial Monday that if the window for a two-state solution closes, the growing Israeli Arab population and sheer demographics made a peace deal the only option.

Israel would have no choice but to grant full voting rights to Palestinians or risk turning into an "ostracized apartheid state," he wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

"In such a scenario, there is no need to hold further discussions about the future of the Jewish and democratic vision as put forth by our founding fathers, the same vision on which we were reared and educated. It will melt away and disappear."

Kerry had been expected to return to the region last week, but had to call off the trip after his wife suffered a seizure. She is recovering in a rehabilitation hospital.

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