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U.S. efforts to steer the latest round of faltering Middle East peace talks back on track stumbled on Tuesday, as attempts to broker an agreement that would simply extend the deadline for talks on a framework for final peace negotiations yielded few encouraging public signs from either side.
Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “completely premature” to draw any conclusions from the results of his latest burst of shuttle diplomacy about the prospects for reviving the framework talks, which stalled after Israel decided not to free a final batch of Palestinian prisoners it had previously agreed to release. That spurred Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to tweak Israel's existing anxiety over the Palestinians’ effort to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood by formally requesting membership in several other international agencies.
"Even tonight, both parties say they want to continue to find a way forward," Kerry told reporters after meeting his NATO counterparts in Brussels to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.
But Kerry’s words did little to change the picture of deadlock on the issue of Palestinian prisoner releases, which Abbas has said must be completed before talks can proceed. The Palestinian leader formally signed a request for recognition from 15 international agencies on Tuesday, a day before he had been slated to meet with Kerry in Ramallah. The State Department subsequently announced that his visit had been canceled, though Kerry did not confirm that information when he spoke in Brussels.
"This is not a move against America, or any other party — it is our right, and we agreed to suspend it for nine months," Abbas said in a televised address from his Ramallah headquarters shortly after signing the requests. He also threatened to submit applications to dozens more agencies and conventions, including U.N. agencies, if Israel did not follow through on the prisoner release.
Palestine became eligible for membership in U.N. agencies after the General Assembly granted it nonmember observer-state status in 2012. But the Palestinians had agreed to refrain from pursuing further U.N. recognition or from taking legal action against Israel in international courts during the nine months of talks that Kerry launched last July.
In his comments Tuesday, Kerry said only that Abbas had not yet requested recognition from the U.N. itself and that the Palestinian leader remained committed to negotiations with Israel through the end of the month.
The U.S. is trying to extend a late-April deadline for negotiations about the framework agreement into 2015. To that end, a senior U.S. official told Al Jazeera on Tuesday an “emerging deal” was being discussed that would offer the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as an incentive for Israel’s cooperation in releasing the agreed-upon prisoners, as well as 400 additional Palestinian prisoners of Israel’s choosing.
Under the potential deal, Israel would also promise to practice “maximum restraint” in the construction of settlements on occupied territory — a key demand of Palestinians — though it did not appear Israel would be required to freeze construction altogether.
On Tuesday afternoon, the White House said President Barack Obama had not made a decision about whether to release Pollard — a departure from the administration’s previous line that Pollard had been convicted of espionage and should serve out his sentence in jail.
The Pollard discussion, coinciding with Kerry’s impromptu visit to the region on Monday and Tuesday, is seen as an increasingly desperate attempt by the U.S. to salvage a largely ineffective round of talks. The two sides remain far apart on the fundamental issues that remain to be settled in a final-status agreement ending the conflict,including Israeli settlement activity, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for displaced Palestinians.
Pollard’s release, which has been a long-standing Israeli request of successive U.S. administrations, has been consistently opposed by the U.S. intelligence establishment.
A former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who was granted Israeli citizenship while in prison, Pollard has been incarcerated since 1985, when he was caught passing sensitive documents to Israel. According to a declassified 1987 CIA report on his case, Pollard had “eagerly seized an opportunity to volunteer for Israeli intelligence” and was tasked with stealing U.S. information about Arab and Pakistani nuclear intelligence and the U.S.’s targeting of Soviet defense systems.
Washington has rejected every clemency request by Israeli leaders since his imprisonment, arguing that he had done irreparable damage to U.S. security.