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Iran, peace talks top agenda on Kerry's Middle East visit

By Michael Pearson and Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 2:42 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Effort to restart peace talks "made some progress," John Kerry says
  • U.S. secretary of state says United States puts Israel's security first
  • In an effort to motivate Israeli, Palestinian leaders, Kerry is bringing offers of aid, security
  • Iran's nuclear program also discussed in Israeli talks

(CNN) -- Talk of Iran's nuclear program took center stage Thursday in discussions between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The inescapable topic of peace between Israel and its Palestinian rivals was also on the agenda.

Netanyahu has accused international powers that reached a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program of making a "historic mistake" that could put Israel in grave danger.

The agreement calls for the easing of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for increased inspections and limits on the country's uranium enrichment program, which many international analysts fear is meant for military purposes.

In public remarks after his private meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry said the United States remains committed to Israel's security.

"I can't emphasize enough that Israel's security in this negotiation is at the top of our agenda," Kerry said, according to pool reports. "And the United States will do everything in our power to make certain that Iran's nuclear program -- a program of weaponization possibilities -- is terminated.

Negotiator in chief: How John Kerry delivered the Iran deal

"We agree on what the goal of the final status agreement ought to be," Kerry said. "And in the days and weeks ahead, we will consult very closely and continually with our Israeli friends in order to bring about a comprehensive agreement that can withstand everybody's test."

Kerry also made another push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Thursday as he hopped between Jerusalem and Ramallah to address grievances from both sides.

He kicked off talks in July, but in November, both sides dug in to their decades-old trenches and passed around blame.

"We have always known that this is a difficult, complicated road, and we understand that," Kerry said in remarks with Netanyahu. "I believe we are making some progress, and the parties remain committed to this task. They are meeting regularly, and they have also remained -- we have remained in very close touch with both leaders as we proceed down this road."

He also addressed peace after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Today, we discussed at great length issues of security in the region, security for the state of Israel, security for a future Palestine," Kerry said. "And we, I think, made some progress in discussing some of the ideas that are on the table. We are not going to discuss these further publicly, but I will say that the goal here for everybody is a viable Palestinian state with the Palestinian people living side by side in peace with the state of Israel and with the people of Israel."

Earlier, Netanyahu said that Israel is "ready for a historic peace" based on a two-state solution but that Israel's security needs must be respected, and finger-pointing that he said helped derail the earlier talks must end.

"What we need is not grandstanding but understanding," he said.

Israeli, Palestinian accusations

In November, Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of continuing to incite distrust of Israel and perpetuating an "artificial crisis" to avoid a real peace deal.

Palestinians shot back that it is Jerusalem that has been sowing distrust, but the hottest issue remains the construction of thousands of Jewish settlement units on the West Bank and other land that Palestinians claim as theirs.

It is the real source of the "deep crisis between the Palestinians and the Israeli negotiations team," a Palestinian official said.

He accused Israel of falsely claiming that the Palestinians were willing to let construction go forward if Israel released more Palestinians from prisons. It's a concession that Israel commonly makes in deals with the Palestinian leadership.

It's simply not true, the official said. "All settlements are illegal in the West Bank and Jerusalem."

Motivating players

Kerry has been toting along a gift bag to motivate the players.

Palestinians are receiving economic stimulus from Washington, which is shelling out a $100 million contribution to a program to build new roads, water lines, schools and other infrastructure.

The measure, called the High Impact Micro-Infrastructure Initiative, is also expected to create jobs for the unemployed in the impoverished territory.

The United States has also tasked U.S. Gen. John Allen to work up an assessment of Israel's security needs in the event of a comprehensive peace agreement, Kerry said.

It's a must if Israel is going to sign on, Netanyahu said. "Israel must be able to defend itself by itself."

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