US Secretary of State John Kerry met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday as he sought to rescue his faltering Middle East peace bid.
Flying into Jordan from an interrupted visit to Rome, Kerry first held talks with King Abdullah II as he pressed his attempt to “continue to narrow the gaps” between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.
He then went into evening talks with Abbas who had just returned from the Arab League’s annual summit in Kuwait, a US official said.
The meeting comes with the talks snagged on two key issues: a blanket Palestinian rejection of Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, and Israel’s reluctance — without assurances that the negotiations will be extended beyond their April deadline — to go ahead with a scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas has told Kerry he will not discuss the Americans’ proposed framework peace accord until after the prisoner releases have taken place, a Palestinian source said.
Under a July deal for the relaunch of the peace negotiations, 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 tranche on March 29, including some Arab Israelis jailed for militant attacks.
If the releases do not go ahead as scheduled this weekend, Palestinian leaders are threatening to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations.
The Palestinians also won key backing Wednesday from the Arab League for their refusal to bow to Netanyahu’s demand to recognize Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
“We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state,” said the Arab League declaration, issued at the end of a two-day summit in Kuwait City.
But the Israeli side hit back that Abbas’s stand on the issue “could torpedo the peace process.”
By refusing to even discuss recognizing Israel as a Jewish state Abbas is destroying any chances of reaching a peace agreement, a senior Israeli official said Wednesday.
“President Abbas’s stubborn refusal to discuss mutual recognition between two nation-states stands in stark contrast with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s willingness to recognize a Palestinian state and his agreement that all of the core issues can be raised in the talks,” the official told The Times of Israel, a day after Abbas again dismissed the idea at an Arab League summit in Kuwait.
By clinging to his position, Abbas “could well torpedo the peace process,” the senior Israeli official said. “He boasted that he refuses to even discuss recognizing the Jewish state, once again parading rejectionism as virtue.”
Kerry, who coaxed the two sides back to the negotiations last July after a three-year freeze, is aiming to reach a framework to guide the talks going forward as an April 29 deadline for a deal looms.
Kerry was due to stay overnight in Amman, before flying back to Rome early on Thursday to join up again with President Barack Obama for a meeting with Pope Francis.
The two Americans will then visit Saudi Arabia on Friday, when the peace process is likely to be one of the issues topping the agenda in talks with Saudi King Abdullah.