AMMAN — 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 promise to free Palestinian prisoners and just after Arab leaders said they would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Kerry, interrupting a visit to Rome, was due to meet first with Jordan’s King Abdullah II before holding talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over dinner in a bid to “continue to narrow the gaps” between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.
Under the terms of a July deal for the relaunch of the talks, Israel said it would release 104 Arabs held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims via the UN.
Israel has so far freed 78 prisoners and is due to release the fourth and final wave on March 29, but there are growing fears Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
The Arab League’s announcement that it would not recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people rejects a key Netanyahu demand from the Palestinian leadership.
Kerry’s meeting with Abbas comes only 10 days after the Palestinian president 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 nonmember 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.
A State Department spokeswoman said Kerry also will talk with Netanyahu in the next few days. After his meeting with Abbas, Kerry will return to Rome to join President Barack Obama at a meeting Thursday with Pope Francis.