Middle East peace talks could be extended beyond their April deadline, Israel's defense minister said Tuesday, insisting current negotiations were aimed solely at providing a framework for final talks. The remarks came a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry left following four days of intense meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, during which he failed to broker agreement on a framework to guide the talks forward. "We are now trying to reach a framework to continue negotiations for a period beyond the nine months some thought would suffice for reaching a permanent accord," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters during a tour of a military base. "We are not working on a framework agreement, but on a framework for negotiations, for continuing negotiations for a longer period," Yaalon was quoted as saying in a statement from his office. Kerry kicked-started nine months of direct peace negotiations in July after a three-year hiatus. According to Israeli
media, Kerry was due back in the region next week. "What's clear is that there are large gaps, they are not new, but our interest is definitely to continue negotiations and continue to act to stabilize the situation and our relationship with the Palestinians," Yaalon said. Yaalon, a hawkish member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, said the crux of the conflict was the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people". A peace treaty would deal with all the divisive core issues, including the contours of a future Palestinian state, refugees, the fate of Jerusalem claimed by both as a capital, security and mutual recognition. Meanwhile, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett warned that his far-right Jewish Home party would leave Netanyahu's coalition if Israel cedes territory to the Palestinians and agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state. "We won't sit in a government that would endanger the future of our
children and divide our capital," he said in a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. But Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, warned that without a peace agreement, "the IDF (Israeli military) will be dragged to international courts". "We have not reached the stage of an agreement yet," Livni said at a Hebrew university speech in Jerusalem in remarks relayed by her office. "We are working on a framework to see if there is a basis for further progress," Livni said. "If it (the framework) will be balanced, we can advance and hopefully reach an arrangement." Israel has so far refused to compromise on the Jordan Valley, which forms a third of the West Bank, and has built thousands of illegal settlements since talks began in July. On Tuesday, Palestinian National Initiative general-secretary Mustafa Barghouthi said Israel is using negotiations as a cover to continue settlement
expansion in the occupied West Bank. Israel's recent approval of 272 new settlement homes shows the true face of an Israeli government which refuses the idea of Palestinian sovereignty and is only seeking to buy time to impose certain realities on the ground, the independent Palestinian MP said. Some 350,000 Jewish settlers live in West Bank settlements, in addition to another 200,000 Israelis settled in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem. The international community considers the colonization of occupied land to be illegal, and the Palestinians have long viewed settlement construction as a key obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.