Israel's defense minister said on Tuesday wide gaps remain in peace talks with the Palestinians after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's latest visit and he cast doubt on the chances of reaching a final accord by an April target.
Negotiations on Palestinian statehood resumed in July after a three-year halt, with a nine-month target set for a permanent peace agreement, amid deep skepticism that a deal could be achieved to end the generations-old conflict.
"We are attempting to achieve a framework for a continuation of negotiations for a period exceeding the nine months in which some thought that we would be able to reach a permanent agreement," Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters.
"It is clear there are big gaps - they are not new - but it is definitely in our interest to continue the talks," he said in broadcast remarks, without defining the differences.
Adding to the skepticism, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's negotiator, sounded a downbeat note in remarks to law students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"I don't want to achieve a deal at any price," Livni said. She hinted at security concerns, such as Hamas Islamists who oppose Washington's peace effort gaining influence in the West Bank where moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rules.
"I am not among those who believe we should throw the key to the other side and just hope Hamas doesn't catch it," she said.
The United States is trying to broker a "framework" of general guidelines to help bridge profound differences over issues including Jewish settlements on occupied land, Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state, the status of Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements and the future of Palestinian refugees, with details to be filled in later.
Before wrapping up his 10th visit to the region on Monday, Kerry said the two sides were making progress but there was still a chance no accord would be reached.
KERRY TO RETURN
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on Tuesday that Kerry would return soon to continue his talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
"We will take into account the suggestions, the requests and wishes of the parties and I hope and we will work so that in a few weeks, or perhaps a month - I don't know how long - we will be ready to present a proposal for a framework on all the core issues," Shapiro said, speaking in Hebrew.
A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinian side was seeking a written framework agreement.
"We want it to address concrete issues, such as saying the Palestinian capital will be 'East Jerusalem', not just 'in Jerusalem'," the official said.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the occupied West Bank and in Hamas-controlled Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Middle East war and pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005.
Palestinians say continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and insistence on a permanent security presence in the territory's Jordan River valley border area are among the major obstacles to a deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has questioned Palestinians' commitment to peace, accusing their leaders of orchestrating "rampant" incitement against Israel.
Yaalon signaled that Israel was looking for a less rigid "framework" deal than Palestinians were seeking, in an apparent nod to concerns any formal agreement now could stoke opposition from hardline members of the Israeli government.
"We are not dealing with a framework agreement, but with a framework for the continuation of negotiations for a more lengthy period," Yaalon said.
Shapiro said that Kerry had sat for "many, many hours" with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and heard from them things that "perhaps nobody else has heard".
"Even though they have already taken brave decisions, he estimates they both have the ability to take more hard decisions with the support of their respective peoples," Shapiro said.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich