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Kerry pushes Israel, Palestinians to make "hard decisions" for Middle East peace

JERUSALEM U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waded again into the nitty-gritty of faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Wednesday, saying he was optimistic that tensions and difficulties could be overcome, even as Israel's leader bashed the Palestinians for the poor state of negotiations.

"I am very confident of our ability to work through them," Kerry told reporters as he opened a meeting in a Jerusalem hotel with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "That is why I am here."

"This can be achieved with good faith and a serious effort on both sides," he said, urging both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who he will see later in the day, to make "real compromises and hard decisions."

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After being launched in July with great fanfare, the negotiations quickly ran into trouble with no visible signs of progress and both sides reverting to a familiar pattern of finger pointing. The goal of reaching a peace deal within nine months appears in jeopardy. And, underscoring the challenge ahead, a secret negotiating session held on Tuesday broke down in an acrimonious dispute over Israeli settlement construction, according to a Palestinian official.

Netanyahu lost no time in complaining about the Palestinians, saying the peace talks were in trouble because of their behavior.

"I am concerned about their progress because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitements, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid (and) run away (from) strong decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace," he told Kerry. "I hope your visit will help steer them back to a place where we could achieve the historical peace that we seek."

The talks are set to end in April, but as CBS Radio News correspondent Robert Berger reports, both sides say the talks -- now three months old -- are deadlocked. That deadlock has raised speculation that the U.S. may need to step up its involvement and present its own blueprint for peace early next year, or perhaps lower expectations and pursue a limited, interim agreement. Kerry and his aides have refused to discuss such an option, insisting instead that the goal of the talks remains a comprehensive peace pact.

Kerry said he would continue to plug away despite the problems.

"We need the space to negotiate privately, secretly, quietly and we will continue to do that," he said. "We have six months ahead of us on the timetable we have set for ourselves and I am confident we have the ability to make progress."

After seeing Netanyahu, Kerry will travel to the West Bank town of Bethlehem for talks with Abbas. He will then return to Jerusalem for a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres and meet with Netanyahu again over dinner. On Thursday, Kerry plans to travel to Jordan, where he expects to see Abbas for a second time on his current mission.

After months of cajoling, Kerry persuaded Israel and the Palestinians to reopen peace talks in late July after a nearly five-year break.

The parties have largely honored Kerry's request to keep the content of the negotiations secret. But officials on both sides have acknowledged that no progress has been made, though they say that the talks have addressed all key issues at the core of the dispute. These include defining the borders of a future Palestine, and addressing Israeli security demands.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. They say they're willing to adjust those borders to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements as part of a "land swap."

Netanyahu opposes a withdrawal to Israel's pre-1967 lines, saying such borders would be indefensible.

He has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they reject on the grounds that it would harm the rights of Israel's Arab minority and Palestinian refugees who claim lost properties inside what is now Israel. Netanyahu also rejects shared control of east Jerusalem, home to key religious sites and the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.

For years, the Palestinians refused to sit down with Netanyahu while he continued to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say continued expansion of the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is a sign of bad faith.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, the Palestinians reluctantly agreed to drop their demand for a settlement freeze in return for Israeli pledges to release about 100 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, and vague assurances that any settlement construction would be restrained.

The U.S.-brokered formula has been put to the test in recent days. Israel released a second batch of prisoners, all of whom had been convicted of murdering Israelis, setting off a painful debate over the merits of such a move. Joyful Palestinian celebrations welcoming the prisoners home as heroes added to the Israeli public's anger.

Netanyahu responded to the prisoner release by announcing plans to build thousands of homes in settlements, angering the Palestinians.

Immediately after arriving in Israel on Tuesday night, Kerry visited the Tel Aviv memorial for slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who reached a landmark peace agreement with the Palestinians before he was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995.

A very small but vocal group of protesters against the prisoner release heckled Kerry as he laid a wreath at the memorial chanting, "Don't free terrorists."

Around the same time, the secret negotiating session was breaking down, according to the Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the pledge not to discuss the negotiations in public.

The official said the outrage over the settlement plans boiled over at a secret negotiating session with the Israelis in Jerusalem. The official said the meeting, held at Kerry's request, "exploded" over the settlement issue, and that the talks were abruptly halted. Abbas is expected to raise the matter with Kerry at their meeting in Bethlehem.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment.