U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met late Wednesday night in what was seen as a critical bid to push the Palestinian leader to continue the stalled peace negotiations with Israel.
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Although neither Kerry nor Abbas issued a statement after the meeting, observers said Kerry apparently tried to find a way to extend the negotiations and prevent unilateral steps on the Palestinians’ side, such as appealing to the United Nations.
In a working dinner in the Jordanian capital, Kerry heard from Abbas, who has objected to extending the nine-month peace talks beyond their April 29 deadline, citing continued Israeli settlement expansion and delays in the planned release by Israeli authorities of 26 Palestinian prisoners.
According to American diplomats in Jordan, Kerry has secured assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel will release the prisoners as previously scheduled — on Friday — if Abbas agrees by then to extend the time limit for the talks.
Palestinian officials said on Wednesday that the talks between the sides are likely to continue in the next few days in a bid to reach an agreement on three key issues – an Israeli agreement to suspend construction in the settlements, carrying out the release of the 26 prisoners, and arranging the additional release of high-profile prisoners such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Sadat.
The sources said the 26 prisoners are expected to be released over the next two weeks, during which the sides would draft an agreed outline for continuing the talks.
Abbas has been critical of the Washington-backed negotiations in recent weeks, indirectly accusing the United States of pressuring Palestinians for “unacceptable” concessions, such as Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, he addressed the Arab summit in Kuwait, charging that during the past eight months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel has refused to end the occupation and instead worked to perpetuate it. Rather than seeking to achieve a just and viable peace, he added, Israel has recently erected new obstacles to such a peace, like its demand for recognition as a Jewish state.
In Israel, a senior official accused Abbas of threatening to “torpedo the peace process” and parading “rejectionism as a virtue.”
“By reiterating his adversarial maximalist position, Abbas is undermining President (Barack) Obama’s vision of peace and torpedoing Secretary Kerry’s efforts to move the process forward,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Earlier Wednesday, Arab leaders at the summit said they would not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, blaming it for the lack of progress in the Mideast peace process.
“We hold Israel entirely responsible for the lack of progress in the peace process and continuing tension in the Middle East, the Arab League communique said. “We express our absolute and decisive rejection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.” The League’s announcement rejects a key demand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Mideast peace talks.
The statement, which came at the end of the two-day gathering, also rejected what the Arab League described as the continuation of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and the “Judaization” of Jerusalem and “attacks in its Muslim and Christian shrines and changing its demographics and geography.”
Arab leaders, at loggerheads over numerous issues including Egypt and Syria, said at the end of the summit that they would seek unity. “We pledge to work decisively to put a final end to divisions,” read their final statement.
Leaders of the 22 member states of the Arab League also denounced killings of civilians by the Syrian government.
The statement did not criticize the United States in any way or touch on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders blasted the statement for not calling explicitly on the Arab states to act to lift the blockade of Gaza.