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John Kerry returns to Middle East with peace talks close to crisis

John Kerry boards his plane in Paris. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images
 in Jerusalem

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, was flying back to the Middle East for the second time in a week on Monday as the latest round of peace negotiations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders appeared to have reached a make-or-break point.

Amid a flurry of intense diplomatic contacts in Jerusalem, state department officials announced that Kerry was flying to Tel Aviv from Paris and would arrive in the region on Monday evening.

According to the officials, Kerry spoke with leaders from both sides as well as with the White House before deciding to travel. “After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region,” said the state department spokesperson Jen Psaki.

There had been talk that Kerry would return to the region later in the week, underlining the urgency of his latest efforts.

The last 48 hours have seen a series of revolving-door meetings between Martin Indyk, the US special envoy to the negotiations, the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israeli justice minister, Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team.

“They are trying to find a solution since no one wants the talks to blow up,” Haaretz quoted a senior Israeli official as saying.

Last week Kerry interrupted a visit to Rome to go to Amman for talks with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to try to convince him to prolong the talks beyond a 29 April deadline for a deal, and to pressIsrael to release prisoners.

The two sides have been deadlocked over the issue of a fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners held long-term in Israeli jails whom Israel committed to release in exchange for the negotiations that began eight months ago.

In exchange for the release of 104 prisoners in four stages, with the final release due at the end of March, the Palestinian leadership agreed not to proceed with seeking recognition at the United Nations.

But with little substantive progress on the key issues – aimed at setting a framework agreement for further negotiations for a two-state solution – the final prisoner release has emerged as an increasingly intractable problem.

The Israeli government has said it is unwilling to go ahead with the latest prisoner release until it has a commitment from Abbas to extend this phase of the negotiations. On Sunday the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the talks were “verging on a crisis”.

The Palestinian side says Israel is in breach of its promise to release the prisoners, and argues that any extension of the peace talks beyond the deadline set by the US of the end of April should not be tied to that issue.

“We are in the crucial hours,” said one Palestinian official familiar with the talks. “Netanyahu is saying that his governing coalition is at risk if he does not get an agreement to extend the talks ahead of the prisoner release. Our position is that if he cannot keep to a commitment he made on the prisoner issue, how will he able to negotiate over issues like east Jerusalem [which Palestinians claim as a capital of their future state].”

Echoing those remarks, Mohammed Ishtayeh, an aide to Abbas, accused Israel of “trying to blackmail us”. But Palestinian officials stopped short of threatening to walk out of the talks altogether. Erekat confirmed that negotiations were ongoing and said Abbas was “making every possible effort” to ensure the prisoners’ release.

Netanyahu has been facing the threat of rebellion from members of his own Likud party and coalition partners if he goes ahead with a further prisoner release, especially if that involves a group of jailed Israeli-Arabs whom Palestinians want included in the final group.

Israeli officials have said they believe 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.

Yuval Steinitz, a Likud cabinet minister, said it was clear the release could not be carried out if Abbas planned on walking out of the talks the next day. “This release was meant to be carried out as the talks proceed, and not when they fall apart.”

Officials have said the two sides remain far apart even on the draft framework. However, Psaki said on Monday that the Israelis and Palestinians had both made “tough choices” over the past eight months.

“As we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve,” she said.

Source: The Guardian

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