elaraby - Reuters - April 19 2011
Arab League Nabil Elaraby chief in Cairo in 2011. Photo by Reuters
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CAIRO — The head of the Arab League said Thursday he is confident that Israel and the Palestinians will soon resolve a crisis over the release of long-held Palestinian prisoners and extend their U.S.-brokered peace negotiations beyond an April deadline.

Nabil Elaraby told The Associated Press that the April 29 deadline would be extended and rejected the idea that the talks have failed to make progress.

"I believe that negotiations are going to be resumed for several months and we hope that this will be the end of it," Elaraby said at the Nile-side Cairo headquarters of the Arab League.

Elaraby, a longtime Egyptian diplomat, did not elaborate, but he did say that he "had contact" with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading the talks.

As Elaraby spoke, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for the fourth consecutive day with U.S. mediators trying to break the impasse.

Palestinian officials said the atmosphere had improved from early in the week, but there was still no deal. "The gap between the sides is still wide on all the issues," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

"No one has given up, but we're not there yet," an Israeli official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the sides have promised Kerry not to discuss the talks with journalists.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Cairo with Egyptian leaders and held talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Elaraby also met with Ashton.

Elaraby sharply criticized Israel in the interview for continuing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem's eastern sector, areas captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Palestinians as part of a future state, along with the Gaza Strip.

"Israel is the only country in the world that sees time to be of strategic, not tactical, importance so it can change conditions on the ground," he said. "They want to gain time and they will continue to do so."