Amman - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday entered two days of intense talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, voicing hope that they want peace but warning they must show progress soon.
In his fifth visit in as many months, Kerry will have lunch with Jordan's King Abdullah II and then dinner in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He returns to Amman for lunch on Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
US officials have cautioned against any immediate breakthroughs and Kerry has promised to show patience. But he has also warned that the long stalemate in one of the world's most intractable conflicts is unsustainable.
"The time is getting near where we need to make some judgements," Kerry said on Wednesday in Kuwait City before flying to Jordan, calling for action "as soon as we can".
While refusing to set a deadline, Kerry was acutely aware of risks if there is no headway by September - the annual UN General Assembly where a frustrated Abbas could rally international opinion against Israel.
"Long before September, we need to be showing some kind of progress in some way, because I don't think we have the luxury of that kind of time," Kerry said.
"It is urgent because time is the enemy of a peace process," Kerry said. "The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don't want things to happen."
US ‘playing blind and deaf’
In a stark reminder of the challenges for Kerry, an Israeli planning committee on Wednesday granted final approval for the construction of 69 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
"Israel is sending message after message to Kerry that settlement is their response to any [peace] initiative," senior Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi told AFP.
"And then they blame the Palestinians for not coming to the negotiating table," she said.
Ashrawi also faulted the United States, saying that Israel's main international ally "is playing blind and deaf about Israel's actions and its declarations".
The United States gave a low-key reaction to latest construction ahead of Kerry's visit, with no public repudiation of the move.
"Obviously steps like this are unhelpful, but we remain hopeful that both parties will recognise the opportunity and the necessity to go back to the table," a senior official travelling with Kerry said on condition of anonymity.
The Israelis and Palestinians have not held direct talks since September 2010, but even then their meetings fell apart quickly.
The Palestinians want Israel to halt all settlement construction and to accept as the basis of negotiations that it will withdraw from land seized in 1967. Israel says it will only talk without such "pre-conditions".
Netanyahu has said his goal is not just to "tick the box of starting negotiations" but to persevere in talks "to deal with the issues and reach an agreement that will resolve the essential issues of the conflict".
Kerry has insisted both Netanyahu and Abbas are committed to peace but acknowledged the veteran politicians face daunting challenges at home.
Netanyahu, whose relations with President Barack Obama were tense over the US leader's stance on the peace process in his first term, emerged from January elections with a coalition that takes an even more critical stance.
Hardline Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon, who earlier this month said the coalition would oppose moves towards a Palestinian state, is poised to take over several key positions within Netanyahu's Likud Party.
Kerry, a veteran US senator, has vowed to press on and has tasked his advisers with coming up with an economic development plan which he hopes can entice the Palestinians and Israelis to seek a peace settlement.
Aaron David Miller, who spent 25 years as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to US secretaries of state, said he has "never seen one as self-assured" as Kerry on the peace process.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Miller called Kerry "the Lone Ranger of the Middle East".