BEIRUT

Middle East

Kerry meets Abbas to shore up Mideast peace talks

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves his plane as he arrives in Amman March 26, 2014.(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

AMMAN: US Secretary of State John Kerry meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas Wednesday as he sought to rescue his faltering Middle East peace bid, amid fears Israel may scrap plans to free Palestinian prisoners.

Flying in to Jordan from an interrupted visit to Rome, he first held talks with King Abdullah II as he pressed his bid to "continue to narrow the gaps" between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.

He then went into evening talks with Abbas who had just returned from the Arab League's annual summit in Kuwait, a US official said.

Under a July deal for the relaunch of the peace negotiations, Israel said it would release 104 Arabs held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims via the UN.

Israel has so far freed 78 prisoners and is due to release the fourth and final tranche on March 29, including some Arab Israelis jailed for militant attacks.

But there are growing fears Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet may block the move.

" Israel is trying to worm its way out of releasing the prisoners. They will be held responsible for any repercussions of this," Palestinian minister of prisoners affairs Issa Qaraqe told Voice of Palestine radio.

He insisted Israel free all the prisoners.

If the releases do not go ahead as scheduled this weekend, Palestinian leaders are threatening to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations.

The Palestinians also won key backing Wednesday from the Arab League for their refusal to bow to Netanyahu's demand to recognise Israel as "the nation state of the Jewish people."

"We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state," said the Arab League declaration, issued at the end of a two-day summit in Kuwait City.

But the Israeli side hit back that Abbas's stand on the issue "could torpedo the peace process."

The Palestinian leader had "boasted that he refuses to even discuss recognising the Jewish state, once again parading rejectionism as virtue," a senior Israeli official said.

"By reiterating his adversarial maximalist position, Abbas is undermining President (Barack) Obama's vision of peace and torpedoing Secretary Kerry's efforts to move the process forward," he added.

Kerry, who coaxed the two sides back to the negotiations last July after a three-year freeze, is aiming to reach a framework to guide the talks going forward as an April 29 deadline for a deal looms.

But Abbas has told him he will not discuss the framework accord until after the prisoner releases have taken place, a Palestinian source said.

Israel also wants the Palestinians to agree to extend the talks beyond April 29, warning a failure to do so would scupper the final prisoner release.

The prisoners are not the only issue jeopardising the peace talks, and the bitter atmosphere has been further muddied by Israeli pressure on the US to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as well as by Israel's continued settlement building.

Israeli army radio said Wednesday the US had offered to release Pollard, who was arrested in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States for Israel, in return for Palestinian prisoners being freed.

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki shot down the report, saying: "There are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard."

He was convicted "of a very serious crime, was sentenced to life in prison and is serving his sentence," she added.

Kerry was due to stay overnight in Amman, before flying back to Rome early on Thursday to join up again with Obama for a meeting with Pope Francis.

The two Americans will then visit Saudi Arabia on Friday, when the peace process is likely to be one of the issues topping the agenda in talks with Saudi King Abdullah.

 
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Summary

US Secretary of State John Kerry meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas Wednesday as he sought to rescue his faltering Middle East peace bid, amid fears Israel may scrap plans to free Palestinian prisoners.

Flying in to Jordan from an interrupted visit to Rome, he first held talks with King Abdullah II as he pressed his bid to "continue to narrow the gaps" between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.

He then went into evening talks with Abbas who had just returned from the Arab League's annual summit in Kuwait, a US official said.

They will be held responsible for any repercussions of this," Palestinian minister of prisoners affairs Issa Qaraqe told Voice of Palestine radio.

He insisted Israel free all the prisoners.

Israeli army radio said Wednesday the US had offered to release Pollard, who was arrested in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States for Israel, in return for Palestinian prisoners being freed.


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