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Kerry in Jordan visit to shore up Mideast peace talks

March 26, 2014 7:39 P.M. (Updated: March 27, 2014 11:11 A.M.)
AMMAN (AFP) -- US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jordan 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.

Kerry, interrupting a visit to Rome, was due to meet first with Jordan's King Abdullah II before holding talks with President Mahmoud Abbas over dinner 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 Palestinians held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the PLO 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 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.

Kerry's meeting with Abbas comes only 10 days after the Abbas was welcomed at the White House by US President Barack Obama for talks which Palestinians officials later admitted had been difficult.

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.

Despite months of meetings between Kerry and Israeli and Palestinian leaders both in the region and in cities around the world, the two sides have remained deeply divided.

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 organizations if Israel does not release the fourth and final group of prisoners," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.

"The release of the prisoners is in return for the freeze on seeking membership in international organizations," he 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.

Pollard and settlements

The prisoner issue is not the only bone of contention jeopardizing 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 recognize Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Arab leaders at a summit in Kuwait on Wednesday fully backed the Palestinians in refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Ties between Israel and its US ally have also been chilled by remarks last week from Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accusing Washington of being weak in its foreign policy in global hotspots.
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