U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry rushed to the Middle East on Monday for a surprise visit aimed at rescuing his Mideast diplomatic efforts, as peace talks approached a critical make-or-break point.
Kerry landed in Israel late Monday before heading to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then to the West Bank town of Ramallah to meet the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry has been working frantically in recent days trying to salvage the embattled peace process. A senior U.S. official said Kerry spoke with Israeli and Palestinian leaders all morning from Paris, as well as with the White House, before deciding to go back to the region.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
American mediators have been holding urgent talks to resolve a standoff over a promised Israeli prisoner release, and to find a formula to extend the talks beyond a current late-April deadline. If the prisoner release, which was scheduled to happen by the end of March, does not take place, the negotiations risk collapse in the coming weeks.
The Palestinian leadership set a meeting to discuss developments Monday evening in the West Bank city of Ramallah. There was no immediate comment from the office of Israel’s prime minister.
Under heavy pressure from Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last July to hold nine months of peace talks, setting a late-April deadline for a final agreement. When that became unrealistic, Kerry scaled back his goals and said he would aim for a preliminary “framework” agreement by April, with the goal of continuing negotiations through the end of the year to iron out the final details of a deal.
But even that more modest goal has run into trouble due to a snag over the prisoner release. When the talks began last summer, Israel promised to free 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages. After carrying out the first three releases, Israel has balked at releasing the final group without a Palestinian commitment to extend talks.
Israeli officials say they are under no obligation to carry out the final release because of what they say is a Palestinian failure to negotiate in good faith.
The prisoner issue is deeply emotional on both sides. The Palestinians consider the roughly 5,000 Palestinians held by Israel to be heroes and freedom fighters. Israel considers them terrorists. The prisoners have all served lengthy terms after being convicted in bloody attacks on Israelis, and the scenes of freed prisoners returning to jubilant celebrations have angered the Israeli public.
Israel says it is under no obligation to free the last group of prisoners, claiming the Palestinians have not negotiated in “good faith.” The Palestinians say Israel is obligated to carry out the release. They are demanding additional gestures, including the release of another 1,000 prisoners and a halt to Israeli settlement construction on war-won lands, in return for extending peace talks.
Kerry had met in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on how to calm tensions and de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.