American diplomatic efforts stepped up a gear this week, writes Stephen Oryszczuk,  after US Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli and Palestinian leaders and spoke of his growing concern about a “festering absence of peace”. Hopes of a possible peace deal were also raised, after the visit sparked talk of reviving a decade-old Middle East peace plan.

While nothing has yet been formally outlined, Palestinian officials say Kerry has suggested modifying the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-sponsored plan offering Israel peace in exchange for a territorial withdrawal.

Kerry’s visit – his third trip to Jerusalem in the past two weeks – follows Barack Obama’s high-profile stopover in March, and comes ahead of new US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel’s planned regional tour later this month.

In a sign of US re-engagement, Kerry’s team confirmed that his Mideast meetings will now become a regular fixture over
the coming months, as he seeks to corral Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table.

“I am intensely focused on this issue and this region,” Kerry said. “This festering absence of peace is used by groups
everywhere to recruit and encourage extremism.”

America’s top diplomat faces an uphill battle. The peace process has been stalled for more than four years, and recent events – including Abbas’s unilateral bid for statehood at the UN and the subsequent Israeli response – have further entrenched distrust on both sides.

In Jerusalem, Kerry acknowledged the problems and sounded a note of optimism.
“Both sides mistrust each other deeply and there are reasons that mistrust has built up,” he said. “I am convinced we can break that down.”

Despite the lack of optimism from other quarters, notably Israel, some believe Obama’s recent visit may act as a catalyst to meaningful negotiations.

In the US, a group of 100 American Jews, among them prominent philanthropists, rabbis and academics, wrote a letter urging Israel to seize the moment and take
concrete steps toward peace.

The letter, initiated by the Israel Policy Forum and addressed to Benjamin Netanyahu, read: “We believe this is a compelling moment to respond to President Obama’s call for peace by demonstrating Israel’s commitment to a ‘two states for two peoples’ solution.”

It also urged Kerry to devise “pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial
sacrifices for the sake of peace”.

However, not everyone agreed with the wisdom of the approach. Morrie Amitay, former director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said: “They should be calling on the Palestinians to provide concrete confidence-building steps, not Israel.”