Kerry, Abbas to meet in Amman Wednesday to salvage talks

US diplomat cuts short trip to Italy for surprise meeting as peace process snags on ‘Jewish state’ demand, prisoner release

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Rome on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/POOL/Jacquelyn Martin)
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Rome on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/POOL/Jacquelyn Martin)

ROME — US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Amman Wednesday, interrupting a visit to Italy to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a deadline looms for reaching a peace deal with Israel.

Kerry’s surprise trip aims “to continue to narrow the gaps between the parties,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday, a tacit acknowledgement of the difficulties bogging down the negotiations.

The US diplomatic chief would also be in touch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “over the phone or by video conference,” she added.

Kerry coaxed the two sides back to the negotiating table in July after a three-year hiatus, but the talks have stumbled as he has sought to hammer out an agreed framework to guide the next few months.

The new meeting with Abbas comes just over a week after the Palestinian leader visited the White House to meet US President Barack Obama for what were described as “difficult” talks.

Kerry’s unexpected plans to leave the Italian capital only hours after arriving came as fresh tensions arose over the peace talks, which he is struggling to keep on track and hopefully extend beyond an April 29 deadline.

Arab leaders meeting Tuesday in Kuwait were expected to back a Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, an Israeli demand that threatens to derail the talks.

In a draft statement endorsed by foreign ministers, the summit stressed a “categorical rejection” of the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and rejected “all pressures exerted on the Palestinian leadership” to force it into agreeing.

Negotiations also risked being waylaid by a row over the release of prisoners by Israel.

Israel pledged when talks began in July to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four batches, in exchange for the Palestinians refraining from pursuing legal action against the Jewish state in international courts.

But after the release of a total of 78 inmates so far, Israeli cabinet ministers have warned that the final remaining batch of prisoners will not be freed on March 29 unless the Palestinians agree to extend the talks beyond the April 29 deadline.

Palestinian leaders, however, have threatened to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations for statehood if Israel fails to free the prisoners as scheduled.

Complicating the standoff, Palestinian leaders have called for Israeli Arabs to be among those released at the weekend.

Kerry arrived in Rome late Tuesday from The Hague, having peeled away from the side of Obama who is also on a European tour which will see him travel to Italy and the Vatican City for Thursday talks.

It was unclear whether Kerry would return to the Italian capital to join up again with Obama, or continue on to Riyadh where the US president is due to meet King Abdullah on Friday.

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