JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry squeezed in final meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Sunday as he wrapped up a fifth peace-brokering visit to the region with little sign of progress.
After six hours of overnight talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Kerry drove out to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah. He was to due to leave for Asia in the afternoon.
Netanyahu, in public remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting after his session with Kerry, gave no indication Israel and the Palestinians were any closer to resuming peace talks frozen since 2010 by a dispute over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
"Israel is prepared to enter into negotiations without delay, without preconditions, and we are not placing any barriers on the resumption of final-status talks on a permanent peace agreement between the Palestinians and us," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is ready for negotiations in the past. But he has balked at Abbas's demand Israel first halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas it captured in a 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians want for a future state.
An Israeli official, who asked not to be identified, said Abbas was also seeking the release by Israel of scores of long-serving Palestinian security prisoners as a goodwill gesture.
But Netanyahu believed the issue should be addressed only after talks resume, the official added.
Kerry has met Netanyahu and Abbas several times in separate locations since Wednesday in the hope of finding a formula to revive the talks.
The top U.S. diplomat and his hosts have divulged little about the discussions, some of which took place in Jordan. But Israeli and Palestinian officials on Saturday saw little chance of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Abbas has said that, for new talks to be held, Netanyahu must also recognise the West Bank's boundary before its capture by Israel as the basis for the border of a future Palestinian state.
Israel, seeking to keep major settlements under any peace accord, has rejected those terms, deeming them preconditions, and has said its security forces would not be able to defend the pre-1967 frontiers.
A U.S. State Department official said Kerry's marathon discussions with Netanyahu and advisers in a Jerusalem hotel suite ended shortly before 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Sunday.
Afterwards, Kerry strolled through the deserted streets of the city accompanied by his security and one of his advisers on the Middle East, Frank Lowenstein.
"They discussed a wide range of issues related to the peace process, building on their earlier conversations this week," a State Department official said of the meeting with Netanyahu.
Kerry is keen to get fresh peacemaking under way before the United Nations General Assembly, which has already granted de facto recognition to a Palestinian state, convenes in September.
Netanyahu is concerned that the Palestinians, in the absence of direct peace talks, could use the U.N. session as a springboard for further moves to get their statehood recognised, circumventing Israel.
Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Heavens