YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan (AP) — The secretary of state's plane headed east toward Washington Tuesday on the final leg of a 22,500-mile trip through Asia and the Middle East. But for John Kerry, sleepless and hoarse from days of diplomacy, the plane was flying in the wrong direction.
Having gained traction on a fragile plan to coax Israel and the Palestinians back into peace talks, Kerry didn't want to go east. He wanted to go west — back to Israel and the West Bank to bring the two sides closer together.
After four days of shuttling between meetings with both parties in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Kerry declared in Tel Aviv that with a little more work, he believed final status negotiations could be "within reach."
Kerry said if he hadn't had to attend an Asian conference in Brunei, he would have stayed in the Mideast to try to hammer out an agreement to restart the talks aimed at finding a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict.
It's a feat that has eluded many leaders and diplomats who have walked the mined path of Mideast diplomacy before, but it's one that would seal Kerry's legacy as secretary of state. There were other takeaways on his two-week journey through seven countries:
He reported having inched U.S. and Russia closer together toward finding a political solution to the bloodshed in Syria. And he worked with U.S. allies in the Gulf to coordinate military and other aid streaming into Syria to help the rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In Qatar, he expressed support for U.S. talks with the Taliban to help end the war in Afghanistan, while saying the militant group needed to prove its seriousness to negotiate. In New Delhi, he worked to strengthen already strong U.S. relations with India, despite disagreements over trade and commerce.
At his last stop in Brunei, Kerry reaffirmed the Obama administration's so-called pivot toward Asia and reiterated the administration's tough stance against North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The nearly three-year civil war in Syria, which has claimed more than 93,000 lives, took the spotlight in Kerry's talks with Arab leaders and his sit-down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Tuesday on the sidelines of the security conference in Brunei. Kerry said he and Lavrov talked about ways to organize an international conference in Geneva, which would follow up on one last year that called for the formation of a transitional government for Syrian.
The U.S. wants to smooth over differences it has with Russia, a key backer of Assad, but many differences remain. Kerry offered no public comment about who would be represented at the so-called "Geneva II" conference, or what role the Assad regime would play in any transitional government that could be established.
There was no public talk about Iran, which has been backing Assad's forces against the rebels, would attend the conference or how the opposition would be represented. "We agreed that we are both serious, more than serious, committed to the Geneva process," Kerry said at the U.S. Embassy in Brunei. "We both agreed that our countries have an ability to be able to make a difference if we can pull together in that effort. ... We narrowed down some of the options with respect to the potential of that conference. We both agreed that that conference should happen sooner than later."
He added, however, that scheduling difficulties probably delay any conference until August or later. But the main substance of the trip was the more than 19 hours of discussions Kerry and his advisers had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry bounced back and forth between the two sides at breakneck speed to try to get them to resume negotiations, which broke down in 2008. In the end, the two sides were closer together, but still apart.
There is much skepticism that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on its way to resolution, but Kerry remains energized in the effort, and was on the phone with the staff he left behind in region during his flight to Brunei and home to Washington. While Kerry said he had narrowed the gaps between the sides, the lack of any visible progress has led to pessimism on both sides.
In a rare upbeat assessment of U.S. mediation efforts, however, the Palestinian president said Tuesday that he is optimistic that Kerry will succeed in restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "We are optimistic because he is serious and determined to reach a solution," Abbas said at a joint appearance with visiting Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel stop building in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem before talks resume. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state. They also say that Israel should recognize its pre-1967 lines as the basis for borders with a future Palestine. Netanyahu has rejected both demands, saying all disagreements should be resolved in negotiations.
After 20 years of intermittent talks with Israel, few believe there's a chance to strike a deal with Netanyahu, an ideological hard-liner whose government is dominated by politicians who oppose significant concessions. Several top officials have taken a tougher line than Netanyahu, speaking out against the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, Netanyahu played down these comments, saying he was committed to seeing Kerry succeed and ready to start serious negotiations. Netanyahu was quoted as saying that if Kerry pitched a tent between his office in Israel and Abbas' office in Ramallah, he would get inside and stay there so serious effort could be expended to resolve the conflict.
Kerry is ready to go back to the region and pitch that tent.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed.