Americans Pushing Hard to Get Israel and Palestinians to Extend Talks

Senior Israeli official: 'The ball is in the Palestinians’ court’; Palestinians insist that fourth batch of prisoners be released as part of framework negotiations.

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Kerry and Abbas in Amman. March 26, 2014.
Kerry and Abbas in Amman. March 26, 2014. Credit: AFP

Senior American officials have been holding marathon meetings over the past 48 hours with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. They are attempting to resolve the crisis over the release of Palestinian prisoners and to formulate an agreement that will allow for the extension of negotiations between the two sides past April 29.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Abbas for a long time in Amman on Wednesday, trying to convince him to agree to extend the negotiations. As he met with Abbas, Kerry also spoke on the phone with Netanyahu. Yesterday, while he was in Rome accompanying U.S. President Barack Obama on his visit, Kerry continued his phone conversations with both Netanyahu and Abbas.

Israel is willing to make additional efforts to extend the negotiations, said a senior Israeli official, but they did not provide details of what those efforts include. The Americans are putting great pressure on both sides, he said. “There is a chance a deal will be reached, but the ball is in the Palestinians’ court,” said the official.

The U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, came to Jerusalem from Amman after the first meeting between Kerry and Abbas. Indyk provided a number of proposals that could become the basis for enabling the continuation of the talks between the two sides for another few months, said Palestinian sources. As far as Abbas and the Palestinian leadership is concerned, the fourth stage of the Palestinian prisoner release must be included in any possible framework.

A serious dispute arose during the meetings between Kerry and Abbas after the Americans proposed postponing the fourth stage of the prisoner release to nearer the date set for the end of the talks, April 29, said Palestinian sources. But the Palestinians were furious, claiming this would be a gross violation of the understandings. Other ideas were raised during the meetings, said the source, such as releasing additional prisoners – including such senior prisoners as Marwan Barghouti – as a condition for extending the talks.

The Palestinians presented Kerry with ideas that had been raised in the past and which both sides have agreed could form the basis for extending the negotiations, including ideas that arose during the Road Map agreement talks under former U.S. President George W. Bush. The Palestinians said that in any case, they are fulfilling their part of the Road Map agreement, and are willing to reestablish the joint committee dealing with incitement. In return they said they expect Israel to fulfill its part, first of all freezing building in the settlements and removing the illegal outposts, as well as reopening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the families of the Palestinian prisoners who are supposed to be released in the fourth stage are waiting for any new developments and news from the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian ministry for prisoners sent the families messages Thursday saying that the release will not take place on Saturday night as originally scheduled, but that they will not agree to a lengthy delay and think the fourth stage will take place within two weeks.

The prisoners’ families and support organizations are planning a number of events for Saturday night, including a march toward the Ofer Prison near Ramallah, and a demonstration in front of the Muqata in Ramallah, alongside protests by the prisoners themselves inside the Israeli prisons.

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