Middle East peace talks could be extended beyond their April deadline, Israel's defence 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," Defence 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.
But his latest visit was clouded by bitter recriminations, with leaders on both sides accusing each other of not being serious partners in the search for peace.
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 stabilise 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 recognise 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."
[Image via Agence France-Presse]