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Kerry plays down spat with Israeli defense chief

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JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday played down criticism by Israel's defense minister of American efforts to broker peace in the Middle East, saying he wouldn't let "one set of comments" undermine his work.

With his subdued reaction, Kerry appeared to be attempting to quickly move beyond the uproar that exploded Tuesday over the comments reportedly made by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. After harsh criticism from Washington, Yaalon issued a late-night apology.

Speaking to reporters in Kuwait, Kerry said that he speaks regularly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said they were both "very committed" to moving forward on peace efforts.

"We just can't let one set of comments undermine that effort, and I don't intend to," Kerry said. "I will work with the willing participants who are committed to peace and committed to this process ... So we will continue to work, and I will work undeterred."

He made no mention of Yaalon's apology.

Kerry has been shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians for months, and is expected back in the region in the coming weeks to deliver his ideas on a framework for peace. He has already submitted a series of proposals for ensuring Israel's security, drawn up by a large team of advisers headed by a retired American general, as part of a future peace deal.

In comments published Tuesday by the Yediot Ahronot daily, Yaalon called Kerry "obsessive" and "messianic" and dismissed Kerry's security plan as worthless.

Yaalon is a former military chief of staff and close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since becoming defense minister last year, a position of great influence in Israel, he has been a vocal skeptic of Kerry's peace efforts. In his public statements, he has said Israel has "no partner" for peace and questioned the Palestinian commitment to resolving years of conflict.

After the U.S. condemned the reported comments as "offensive and inappropriate," Yaalon issued a late-night apology. "The defense minister had no intention to cause any offense to the secretary, and he apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister," a statement read.

Yaalon is a former military chief of staff and close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since becoming defense minister last year, a position of great influence, he has been a vocal skeptic of Kerry's peace efforts. Many members of Netanyahu's Cabinet hold similar views.

Under heavy American pressure, Israel and the Palestinians resumed substantive peace talks last July for the first time in nearly five years. So far, there have been no signs of progress, and the talks have been marred by finger pointing by both sides.

With an April target date for an agreement approaching, Kerry has said he will soon return with bridging proposals for a framework deal. In recent weeks, both sides appear to have hardened their positions.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. Netanyahu wants to keep parts of the West Bank and says he will not share control of east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious sites. He has also insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they say would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel's own Arab minority.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday, Palestinian protesters demonstrated against Kerry's peace efforts. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, complained that American proposals had largely sided with Israeli positions.

He said Israel is demanding that it keep large blocs of West Bank settlements, maintain a presence in the West Bank's Jordan Valley and retain control of airspace, water resources and telecommunications frequencies in the West Bank, and keep its control of east Jerusalem.

"After this, they talk about a two-state solution. Which state is that? It has no borders, no crossings or capital, and we don't know the future of the settlement blocks," he said at a news conference.

Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians "don't see any chance for progress," but remained committed to remaining in the talks through April.

After that, he said, the Palestinians are planning to resume efforts for recognition in the United Nations and other international bodies.

Lara Jakes in Kuwait City, Kuwait and Dalia Nammari from Ramallah, West Bank contributed reporting.