Kerry Arrives in Mideast in Bid to Seal Israel-Palestinian Talks

In effort to prevent collapse of peace talks, Kerry says decisions must be made regarding prisoner release and extension of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel on Monday evening in an effort to prevent the collapse of peace talks and secure a deal that will extend the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry, who flew in from Paris after a two-day visit there, is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within a few hours of landing in Israel. He is then expected to continue on to Ramallah later Monday evening for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

This week's trip follows contacts made by U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk with both sides. The secretary of state had been scheduled to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas only on Tuesday morning, but moved up the meetings apparently in a bid to push the matter forward as quickly as possible.

Kerry said Sunday night that several decisions must be made on Monday regarding the prisoner release and the extension of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The PLO Executive Committee will meet in Ramallah Monday night, when Abbas will present the proposal from Israel and the U.S. for extending talks.

During a briefing with American reporters accompanying the secretary of state in Paris, Kerry was asked whether Israel is planning on releasing the prisoners and whether this obstacle will be overcome. Kerry said he didn't want to get into details since the sides were still in discussions.

"I think it’d be inappropriate to get into any kind of judgments about what may or may not occur or happen because it’s really a question between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and what Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do. So he has – he is working diligently, I know. I just literally talked to him 15 minutes ago. And he’s working at it," Kerry said.

"Our team is on the ground. We have our chief negotiator and the full team there. They’re working every moment. I’ve been in touch with them constantly through the day. And we’ll see where we are tomorrow when some judgments have to be made."

Kerry has been maintaining close and constant contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two spoke Sunday night and again Monday morning. Kerry held similar conversations with Abbas. On Sunday night, Indyk met with Justice Minister and Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and envoy Yitzak Molcho, and separately with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The Americans are exerting pressure on both sides to agree to a deal that would extend negotiations to the end of 2014. Israel is making some offers, chief among them the release of 300-400 Palestinian prisoners of its choosing – among them those serving short sentences, women and minors, and ill prisoners whose have been classified as humanitarian cases.

The Palestinians have not yet responded to the proposal. They are demanding Israel freeze settlement construction and the authorization of economic and infrastructure projects in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli control. They are expected to reach a final decision on the proposal Monday night.

If the Palestinians agree to the deal, Israel will implement the fourth prisoner release agreed upon as part of the understandings that led to the renewal of peace talks at the end of July 2013. It is still unclear whether the 14 Israeli Arab prisoners the Palestinian are demanding be included will also be released.

If the sides get past the prisoner release crisis and extend talks, the Americas are interested in resuming negotiations on a framework agreement, which they have been trying to formaulte in recent months. The framework agreement is expected to include principles for a solution to the core issues and serve as a basis for negotiations.

Despite intense contacts over the last three months on these matters, the gaps between the sides on the substance of the document remain large.