The Palestinians have given Washington’s top diplomat John Kerry until Tuesday to resolve a a dispute with Israel over the release of prisoners after he flew in to salvage crisis-hit peace talks.
US peace efforts are teetering on the brink of collapse after Israel refused to free a group of 26 veteran Palestinians under an agreement that brought the sides back to the negotiating table in July 2013.
Furious Palestinian officials — who had agreed to freeze all efforts to secure international recognition for the duration of the peace talks — have warned that unless Israel changes its stance on the prisoner releases, it could signal the end of the talks.
After landing at Tel Aviv airport at 1600 GMT on Monday, US Secretary of State Kerry headed straight to Jerusalem for a two-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But a late-night meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was cancelled, sources on both sides said, without giving a reason.
Instead, Kerry held talks at his Jerusalem hotel with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, US officials said.
Kerry flew to the Middle East from Paris for what was expected to be little more than a 15-hour visit to push both sides to resolve the lingering dispute over Palestinian prisoners that is threatening to derail the negotiations ahead of an April 29 deadline.
Abbas spent most of the evening locked in a key meeting to discuss the standoff, with the leadership giving Kerry 24 hours to come up with a solution to the prisoners issue.
– Israel will ‘bear the consequences’ –
“If we don’t get an answer from John Kerry on the prisoners tonight, we’ll begin to ask for membership in all UN agencies tomorrow (Tuesday),” independent Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghuti said.
Kerry is due to hold further talks with Netanyahu on Tuesday, before returning to Europe for a NATO meeting in Brussels.
Israel earlier agreed to release a total of 104 prisoners in four stages but after it refused to free the fourth and final batch of prisoners on March 29, the Palestinians said that all bets are off, with officials warning Israel would “bear the consequences” of its decisions.
The Palestinian leadership agreed there would be no extension of the peace talks without a “comprehensive” freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, two separate sources said.
The talks, which have so far yielded no obvious results, are due to draw to a close on April 29 and US efforts are currently focused on getting the parties to agree an extension to the end of the year.
The question of an extension has become intricately tied up with the fate of the 26 prisoners.
Just a day ahead of the expected releases, Israel said it would not free detainees convicted of deadly attacks unless the Palestinians would commit to extending the negotiations.
But the Palestinians say they will not even discuss any extension of the negotiating period unless Israel frees the prisoners.
The impasse has triggered “intense” US efforts to resolve the dispute, with Kerry speaking with both sides earlier on Monday.
The US decision to fly Kerry in came after a late-night meeting between the negotiating teams in Jerusalem at which Israel had made a fresh proposal for extending the negotiations that was rejected by the Ramallah leadership, a Palestinian official said.
“Israel is practising a policy of blackmail and linking its agreement to releasing the fourth batch of prisoners with the Palestinians accepting to extend the negotiations,” he said.
– Pollard fate the key? –
In exchange for Palestinian agreement to continue the talks, Israel had offered to free the fourth batch of detainees and to release another 420, most of them common law criminals.
And although the Israelis were offering a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank, it would not be extended to east Jerusalem.
It was Kerry’s first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories since early January, although he has held face-to-face meetings with both Netanyahu and Abbas in Europe and the United States.
Separate sources close to the talks said Israeli and US negotiators were discussing a possible deal to secure the release of US-born Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as a way to unblock the talks impasse.
Pollard was arrested in Washington in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel.
One proposal could see Pollard freed before the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins in mid-April.
In exchange, Israel would release the final batch of prisoners as well as another group of detainees, and the sides would agree to extend the talks.