Kerry in Jordan to shore up Mideast peace talks
AMMAN - Agence France-Presse
Secretary of State John Kerry leaves his plane as he arrives in Amman March 26, 2014. REUTERS PhotoUS Secretary of State John Kerry met with Jordan's King Abdullah II Wednesday in a fresh bid to keep his Middle East peace bid on track, amid fears Israel may renege on a vow to free Palestinian prisoners.
Flying in from an interrupted visit to Rome, Kerry was also to hold talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in Amman in a bid to "continue to narrow the gaps" between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.
Under a July deal for the relaunch of the talks, 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, but there are growing fears Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet may refuse to approve the move.
Palestinian leaders are threatening to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations if the prisoners are not freed as scheduled this weekend.
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 Jewish state."
"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 the two-day meeting in Kuwait City, which was also attended by Abbas.
A senior Palestinian source said Kerry, who has been accompanying President Barack Obama on a trip to Europe, had asked Abbas to send Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat to Rome to meet with him, but the Palestinian president had refused.
Kerry, who coaxed the two sides back to the negotiations last July after a three-year freeze, is seeking to keep up the pressure to reach an agreed framework to guide the talks going forward as an April 29 deadline for a deal looms.
But Abbas has told the chief US diplomat that he will not discuss the framework accord until after the prisoner releases have taken place, the Palestinian source said.
Abbas has so far held off on efforts to use the UN's November 2012 recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer to press for membership in international bodies where it could fight Israeli occupation.
But Palestinians are warning they may drop that pledge if Israel breaks its side of the deal by not freeing the prisoners.
"We shall turn to the UN's international organisations if Israel does not release the fourth and final group of prisoners," Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, told Voice of Palestine radio.
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 prisoner release is not the only issue jeopardising the peace talks, and the atmosphere has been further muddied by Israeli pressure on the US to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as well as by 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.
Repeated Israeli announcements of new settlement construction have also angered the Palestinians, as has Netanyahu's demand that they recognise Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people."
Ties between Israel and its US ally have also been chilled by remarks last week from Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon accusing Washington of being weak in its foreign policy in global hotspots. Kerry was due to stay overnight in Amman, before flying back to Rome on Thursday to join up again with Obama for a meeting with Pope Francis.
The two men 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.