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Syria, Egypt turmoil nudges Israel, Palestinians toward peace

A boy stands near an Israeli flag in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, north of Ramallah July 18, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A boy stands near an Israeli flag in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, north of Ramallah July 18, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Arshad Mohammed

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Turmoil in Syria and Egypt is nudging Israelis and Palestinians toward peace, a U.S. official said on Friday as Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Europe for talks about that conflict and a possible U.S. strike on Syrian targets.

While the chief U.S. diplomat's three-day trip was originally designed to focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and will include a lengthy meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in London on Sunday, Syria is sure to consume many of his conversations with European and Arab diplomats.

Kerry will meet European Union foreign ministers in the Lithuanian capital on Saturday as the U.S. Congress weighs whether to give President Barack Obama the authority to conduct military strikes on Syria following an August 21 attack in which Washington accuses Damascus of using sarin gas to kill at least 1,400 Syrians.

The White House has argued that any strike would aim to deter Syria, and others, from using chemical weapons and it has denied any intention of getting enmeshed in Syria's civil war.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Syria's civil war, as well as upheaval in Egypt, whose army ousted Islamist Mohamed Mursi, its first freely elected president, gives Israelis and Palestinians an incentive to end their conflict.

"Both sides have made clear to us and to each other that they do not want the turmoil to engulf them and that therefore it motivates them to try to resolve their conflict to prevent that from happening," the official told reporters with Kerry.

The White House has ruled out sending combat troops to Syria and, while it wants to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to embrace a political deal to leave power, it has said the purpose of any strike is solely to deter chemical weapons use.

'WAR OF ATTRITION'

"I don't expect huge, huge change on the day after (any U.S. strike)," a second senior State Department official told reporters with Kerry. "I think the war of attrition will grind on ... without the use of chemical weapons," he said. "It is a war of attrition that the regime slowly, gradually is losing."

If the United States failed to act, this would likely lead more refugees to flee Syria - some 2 million have already left - and strengthen "extremist" members of the opposition at the expense of moderates, this official said.

Obama asked Congress to authorize a strike after it became clear he would not win U.N. Security Council sanction given Russian opposition, after the parliament of U.S. ally Britain voted against taking part, and as opinion polls showed U.S. skepticism about getting dragged into Syria's 2-1/2-year-old civil war.

Kerry may try to garner international support for a strike but his main focus is likely to be on his signature initiative, the July 29 resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that he hopes will yield the outlines of a deal within nine months.

The core issues that need to be settled in the more than six-decade-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute include borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem.

After meeting EU foreign ministers on Saturday, Kerry flies to Paris for talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius the same day and to see members of an Arab League committee formed to track Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Sunday.

He then heads to London for what one U.S. official said was likely to be a several-hour, one-on-one session with Abbas on Sunday, before returning on Monday to Washington, where he is expected to plunge back into the U.S. debate over Syria.

Kerry has been Obama's primary public advocate for military action against Syria - most likely in the form of cruise missile strikes - and he last week made his case for several hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he first appeared as a young Vietnam veteran arguing against that war.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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