Kerry pursues Syria, Mideast plans in Rome talks
US Secretary of State John Kerry doggedly pursued his hopes of both ending the war in Syria and bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations on the third day of a whirlwind tour.
Fresh from a marathon day of diplomacy in Moscow at which he agreed with Russian leaders to organise a conference seeking to end the bloodshed in Syria, the new top US diplomat met for talks with Israeli peace negotiators.
In a surprise move, Kerry announced he would make his fourth trip back to Israel in less than three months towards the end of May, as he seeks to breathe fresh life into the talks stalled since late 2010.
All sides were approaching the issues "with a seriousness of purpose that has not been present in a while and we all believe that we are working with a short time span," Kerry said as he met top Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni in the US ambassador's residence in Rome.
He added they were working through "a threshold of questions" and he would return to Israel around "the 21 or 22 of this month" to meet both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
US President Barack Obama spoke to Netanyahu, who is visiting China, on Wednesday to discuss "regional security issues and Middle East peace", the White House said.
US officials have declined to comment in detail on air strikes by Israel on targets near Damascus on Friday and Sunday which Israeli sources said destroyed Iranian missiles apparently destined for the Hezbollah militia.
But Obama said on Saturday after the first set of Israeli raids that the Jewish state was justified in seeking to "guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah".
The call between Netanyahu and Obama patched up a previously testy relationship during the US leader's trip to Israel in March.
Livni praised Kerry's efforts saying "after some years of stalemate ... your enthusiasm and efforts could change the realities".
"I believe that what you are doing here could create hope in the region, because people somehow lost hope."
On Thursday Kerry was to meet the Middle East envoy for the Quartet, Tony Blair, State Department spokeswoman Jen Pskai told AFP.
He will also hold talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on both Syria, and Jordan's role in the peace process.
During meetings in Moscow lasting into the early hours of Wednesday, Kerry agreed with Russian leaders to convene a new international conference to try to find a way to end the 26-month Syrian conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kerry said they hoped the conference could be held by the end of May to build on the Geneva accord agreed by world powers last June for a peaceful solution in Syria.
The six-point Geneva agreement, which bogged down almost as soon as it was signed, set out a path toward a transitional government without ever spelling out the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Kerry and Lavrov have now agreed to act almost as go-betweens between the opposition and the Assad regime aiming to bring the two sides to the table to map out a path to a transitional government.
Syria's main opposition National Coalition however shot back that any political settlement must start with Assad's departure.
"The National Coalition welcomes all international efforts which call for a solution to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and their hope for a democratic state, so long as they begin with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his regime," the umbrella group said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who spoke to Kerry during his flight to Rome Wednesday, meanwhile announced he would fly to the Russian resort of Sochi on Friday to discuss the Syrian conflict with President Vladimir Putin.
"There's an urgent need to start a proper negotiation to force a political transition and to bring this conflict to an end," Cameron told the House of Commons.
Lavrov signalled Tuesday that Russia was growing increasingly concerned about the bloodshed. And in a swipe at Assad, he stressed "we are not interested in the fate of certain persons, we are interested in the fate of the Syrian people".
Since the war erupted to oust Assad, more than 1.5 million Syrians have fled the country into neighbouring nations, including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, vastly straining their resources.
Jordan is housing some 500,000 refugees -- many of them in the Zaatari refuge camp which is now the country's fourth largest city -- who have escaped the violence in Syria, in which some 70,000 people have been killed.
The State Department said Wednesday the United States is to donate another $100 million (76 million euros) in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, boosting its total to $510 million.