Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Kerry returns to Mideast as peace talks falter

Negotiations snag over Israel's failure to release long-held Palestinian prisoners by the end of March

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry broke from his travel schedule and returned to the Middle East on Monday, hoping to save the floundering effort to secure agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a framework for negotiations.

After interrupting a visit to Rome last week to fly to Amman for talks with Abbas, the State Department said Monday Kerry was flying from Paris to Tel Aviv for meetings that may be held in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

“After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement on Monday, adding that Kerry also spoke with leaders from both sides as well as the White House before deciding to go.

American mediators have been holding urgent talks with the two sides in hopes of salvaging the troubled negotiations and getting them to extend the talks beyond an April 29 deadline. While the immediate threat to continued negotiations has been Israel reneging on a U.S.-brokered agreement to release Palestinian prisoners, the two sides remain far apart on the substantial issues over which they'd have to agree for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Ahead of Kerry’s impromptu visit, Israel on Sunday handed the Palestinians a proposal aimed at extending the talks beyond April, according to a Palestinian official.

An Israeli official would not provide details on the proposal, but told AFP: "Now the Palestinians need to reply if they are willing to continue negotiations."

Under heavy pressure from Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last July to hold nine months of peace talks, setting a late-April deadline for a final agreement. When that became unrealistic, Kerry scaled back his goals and said he would aim for a preliminary "framework" agreement by April, with the goal of continuing negotiations through the end of the year to iron out the final details of a deal.

But even that more modest goal has run into trouble due to a snag over the prisoner release. When the talks began last summer, Israel promised to free 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages, with the final release coming by the end of March. After carrying out the first three releases, Israel has balked at releasing the final group of 26 prisoners without a Palestinian commitment to extend talks.

The Palestinians say they will not even consider extending the talks without the prisoners being freed, but Israeli officials say 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 is clear" the release can't be carried out if Abbas plans 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."

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. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, confirmed that negotiations were ongoing and said Abbas was "making every possible effort" to ensure the release of the fourth group.

U.S. efforts have been met with considerable pessimism, but the State Department urged both sides to remain patient.

“Over the course of the last eight months, the Israelis and Palestinians have both made tough choices, and 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,” Psaki said in the Monday statement.

Kerry met Sunday in Paris with Russia's foreign minister about the Ukraine crisis. After his meetings in Israel and the Palestinian territories, he plans on flying to Brussels on Tuesday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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