Kerry Meets Abbas in Bid to Prevent Collapse of Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a last-minute detour to Jordan to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a bid to avert a breakdown in his peacemaking efforts as an April 29 deadline nears.

A dispute over a scheduled Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners jeopardizes Kerry’s bid to produce a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Israel’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, said March 18 that freeing prisoners at the end of the month depends on whether the Palestinians are prepared to continue serious negotiations. Abbas has threatened to walk out of talks if the prisoners, convicted in attacks on Israelis, aren’t freed.

Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the flight to Amman and plans to speak with him after his talks with the Palestinian leader, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The secretary met briefly with Jordan’s King Abdullah shortly after landing.

Kerry has been trying for three months to craft a framework to keep negotiations going beyond the nine months they agreed to in July. Abbas and Netanyahu have set conditions for such a document that the other has deemed unacceptable.

“It’s clear we will not see anything like an agreement or a document,” said Yoram Meital, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. “The U.S. efforts in Amman, which will probably continue in Jerusalem, are all aimed now at keeping the channels open and trying to bridge disagreements so this round of talks isn’t perceived as a failure.”

Jewish State

Netanyahu has said he wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, to ensure a peace deal will end any claims they have on Israel. Palestinians say that’s tantamount to renouncing their national heritage and the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants who lost homes in present-day Israel during fighting over its 1948 independence.

A senior Israeli official accused Abbas of rejectionism and undermining Kerry’s efforts by refusing to discuss recognizing the Jewish state. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Abbas has said he won’t continue the talks after April unless Israel freezes settlement construction and releases the last of the 104 prisoners it agreed to free before Palestinians would resume negotiations. Netanyahu has rejected a settlement freeze, and changing that position would provoke strong opposition from members of his ruling coalition and probably lead to a realignment of his government.

Israeli Prisoners

The Palestinians have called for Israeli Arab security prisoners to be included in next week’s release, a stance Netanyahu rejects on the ground they are his country’s citizens.

Israel’s Army Radio said today that U.S. officials have raised the possibility of freeing Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy analyst convicted of passing secrets to Israel, if Netanyahu agrees to free the Israeli Arab prisoners, as an inducement to keep Palestinians at the negotiating table.

“There are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard,” Psaki said today. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told Army Radio he hadn’t “heard anything like that from the prime minister.”

Palestinian officials have said that if the peace talks break off or end with no progress, and Israel continues to build in settlements, they will resume their pursuit of statehood goals at world bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, something Israel and the U.S. oppose.

Attention Elsewhere

If the talks stumble now and lose whatever momentum they had, Meital said, it’s unlikely that an Obama administration preoccupied by its conflict with Russia over Crimea, and concerned over deteriorating relations with other regional allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, will be able to maintain a strong focus on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

“While they certainly don’t want to announce any halt in trying to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians, it would probably not remain the top priority that Kerry has made of it during the past year,” he said.

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