Kerry headed back to region this week

Palestinians said to still be demanding release of 104 prisoners and a full settlement freeze as preconditions for direct talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the region on Tuesday for the sixth time since taking office February 1, in a further effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator.

Saeb Erekat, speaking to the Jordanian newspaper al-Rai, confirmed that Kerry would return this week. Erekat, a veteran of negotiations with Israel, blamed Jerusalem for creating obstacles to the renewal of discussions and told the paper that Israel “must meet its responsibilities.”

Senior Palestinian Authority figures are set to meet Sunday evening in order to discuss the negotiations. According to reports, they plan to stick with the three main Palestinian preconditions for resuming direct talks: a cessation by Israel of all construction in the settlements, agreement on the 1967 lines as a basis for talks, and a release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Kerry, in an effort to restart peace talks, has been shuttling between the sides since taking office earlier this year. His efforts have narrowed the gaps but not generated new talks.

Israeli officials say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to release many of the pre-Oslo prisoners, most of whom have Israeli blood on their hands, but in phases, fearing that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would abandon the negotiations if all the prisoners went free at the outset.

He also reportedly agreed to several concessions in his talks with Kerry during Kerry’s last visit, including a construction freeze outside the major West Bank settlement blocs and a slowing down of building in East Jerusalem and inside the settlement blocs. Some of Kerry’s staff stayed behind to work with the Palestinian team in Ramallah on its demands and Israel’s responses.

However, Netanyahu has also repeatedly said that he would not accept any Palestinian preconditions before discussions, but is willing to discuss “all issues” at the negotiating table.

The last direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down in 2010, having only briefly resumed at the tail end of a 10-month settlement freeze ordered by Netanyahu in November 2009.

Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, suffered a seizure on June 30. She has been hospitalized ever since, throwing the travel plans of the secretary of state into question.

However, on Sunday Heinz Kerry had been moved to a rehabilitation hospital in Boston as her condition continued to improve, perhaps clearing the way for Kerry to resume his travel schedule.

State Department spokesman Glen Johnson said Thursday that her condition has been upgraded from “fair” to “good.”

Doctors determined the 74-year-old suffered a seizure at the couple’s home in Nantucket last weekend, but the precise cause has not been determined. Doctors previously ruled out brain tumor, heart attack or stroke as possible triggers.

Johnson said that during Heinz Kerry’s convalescence, the secretary of state will split his time between Boston and Washington and resume his official travel schedule soon.

Michal Shmulovich and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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