DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Israel today. He's hoping to restart direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The secretary of State is holding two separate meetings, first with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and then with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
NPR's Emily Harris has been following these meetings and joins us from Jerusalem. Hey, Emily.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So John Kerry was in the region in April, not so long ago. I mean what is he expected to accomplish in this visit?
HARRIS: That's right, he was here in April. And he was also here a couple times in March, around President Obama's visit. And he has been in touch with the Palestinian and Israeli officials in between. The Palestinian negotiator who is heading this effort said that he talks frequently with Kerry by phone, and Israeli officials have also said they are in close contact with him. All this, all these, you know, face-to-face meetings on the ground here, the phone conversations are an effort to get together a proposal to restart direct discussions between Palestinian and Israeli officials about some kind of peace settlement. It's not expected that Kerry would actually announce that proposal on this trip. The understanding here is that that might come early next month. So these conversations - as you mentioned separately, with both sides are to discuss and get into, you know, ever more detail in these discussions about what it might take to actually get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.
GREENE: I mean this is an issue, obviously, that has been there for years and years, and it's probably going to take movement on both sides. I mean, is there a sense that either or both sides are ready to move on some of the tough issues?
HARRIS: You know, it's always hard to tell on this, but if you look at some of the wording that people have been using this week, for example, the lead Israeli negotiators said in parliament yesterday, that it is first and foremost in Israel's interest to resume peace talks - they're really pushing for that. The lead Palestinian negotiator said, earlier this week at a United Nations committee in New York, that Palestinians have no preconditions for starting talks. But at the same time he also called the situation that Palestinians face in the West Bank apartheid, and that is a comment that's never welcomed by Israeli officials.
I've been talking with people here, analysts and officials this week about the prospects for Kerry's work to bring results in. And one Palestinian political leader, for example, told me he was really skeptical that the U.S. is committed to putting pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, a very contentious issue.
GREENE: Very contentious issue - one that has been around for a long time. And we should just remind people, these settlements; this is Israel building homes in the West Bank on land Israel captured back in the '67 war. But this is land that Palestinians believe should be part of a future state for them, right?
HARRIS: That's right. And it's very complicated. This starting and stopping of settlements is something that always comes into these political discussions. And for example, a couple of weeks ago, it became public that the Israeli government hasn't issued any new bids for construction for these settlements. But at the same time, it gave the green light for 300 new homes, but the government said this wasn't a new project as this was a project that was to resettle Israelis who have had to move from a previous settlement after an Israeli court found that those homes had been built on private Palestinian land.
GREENE: Some mixed messages there, it sounds like.
HARRIS: Very mixed messages there. And then the Israelis government announced that they would retroactively legalize four settler buildings that had been constructed without Israeli or Palestinian, of course, permission. And there were reports in the Israeli media that Kerry had called the Israeli ambassador in D.C. to find out more about that.
The bottom line on settlements, why this is such a contentious issue, is from the Palestinian perspective that the more Israel builds in the West Bank, the more Palestinians will have to negotiate to get back what they say should be theirs anyway. And from Israel's perspective, this is the land of Israel and people should be able - Israelis should be able - to live there.
GREENE: So John Kerry has some work cut out for him it sounds like.
HARRIS: He has a lot of work cut out for him. And again, this visit is to get down to some of the nitty-gritty of what it would actually take to get Palestinians and Israelis to the table to start talking about the issues that would need to be worked out to actually get a peace agreement.
GREENE: NPR's Emily Harris joining us from Jerusalem. Emily, thanks a lot.
HARRIS: Thanks, David.
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