AMMAN: US Secretary of State John Kerry met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday seeking to rescue his faltering Middle East peace bid, amid fears Israel may scrap plans to free Palestinian prisoners.
Flying in to Jordan from an interrupted visit to Rome, he first held talks with King Abdullah II as he pressed his bid to “continue to narrow the gaps” between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.
He and his team then went into talks over dinner with Abbas who had just returned from the Arab League’s annual summit in Kuwait.
The talks stretched late into the night and only ended after more than four hours, a US official said. Neither side made any immediate comment after the meeting.
Under a July deal re launching the peace negotiations, 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, including some Arab Israelis jailed for militant attacks.
But there are growing fears Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet may block the move.
In Jerusalem, about 50 relatives of the victims of the attacks demonstrated near Netanyahu’s residence against widening the prisoner releases.
“Justice and values come before politics. We can’t reach peace by ignoring the blood of the victims,” said Meir Indor, a spokesperson for the families.
Palestinian minister of prisoners affairs Issa Qaraqe told Voice of Palestine radio that “Israel is trying to worm its way out of releasing the prisoners. They will be held responsible for any repercussions of this.”
He insisted Israel free all the prisoners.
- League rejects ‘Jewish state’ -
The Palestinians also won key backing Wednesday from the Arab League for their refusal to bow to Netanyahu’s demand to recognize Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people.”
“We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state,” an Arab League declaration said at the end of the two-day summit.
But the Israeli side hit back that Abbas’s stand on the issue “could torpedo the peace process.”
The Palestinian leader had “boasted that he refuses to even discuss recognizing the Jewish state, once again parading rejectionism as virtue,” a senior Israeli official said.
Kerry, who coaxed the two sides back to the negotiations, last July after a three-year freeze, is aiming to reach a framework to guide the talks going forward as an April 29 deadline for a deal looms.
But Abbas has told him he will not discuss the framework accord until after the prisoner releases have taken place, a Palestinian source said.
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.
“We don’t need a new series of accords so that Israel can bury them under an avalanche of conditions, reservations or interpretations before going back on their commitments,” Abbas told the Arab League.
The prisoner issue is not the only issue jeopardizing the peace talks.
Israeli army radio said Wednesday the US had offered to release Jonathan 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.
Kerry was to stay overnight in Amman, before flying back to Rome early on Thursday to join up again with Obama for a meeting with Pope Francis.
The two Americans 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.