– Secretary of State John Kerry’s uphill path to a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians seemed ever steeper Wednesday, as the two sides clashed over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the exoneration of a right-wing Israeli politician threatened to inject a volatile element into the talks.

The developments could portend a harder line from Israel toward the Palestinians, and increase the pressure on Kerry to play a more muscular mediating role, three months after his intense personal campaign lured the adversaries back to negotiations after years of impasse.

On Wednesday, Kerry pressed Israel more forcefully than he had before to limit new construction of settlements. But his own effort to cool temperatures came amid growing signs of a poisoned atmosphere, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel bluntly accusing the Palestinian leadership of fomenting distrust.

Adding to the potential hurdles was the acquittal on corruption charges of Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman, whose hard-line views could disrupt the talks. Lieberman, who is expected to return to the foreign minister’s post, has said he views a peace deal with the Palestinians as being “decades away.”

Kerry, who went to Jerusalem to recapture the initiative in the talks, struggled to keep them from slipping into a familiar cycle of recrimination. Under pressure from President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, he declared that the Palestinians had not accepted continued building in settlements as an Israeli condition for restarting talks and he emphasized that the United States considers the settlements to be “illegitimate.”

New York times