Kerry in emergency trip to Mideast. Can peace talks be salvaged?

Israel is refusing to release a promised fourth group of Palestinian prisoners. With all sides digging in their heels, even Kerry's scaled-back goal of a 'framework agreement' seems out of reach.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (r.) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Monday, March 31, 2014, for an emergency trip to the region to continue working on talks about the Middle East peace process.

Last summer Secretary of State John Kerry set out on what many considered to be a mission impossible: reach a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians creating a Palestinian state by the end of April.

Now Mr. Kerry is on an emergency trip to the region – his second in a week – to try to salvage the talks and avoid a total breakdown that could end hopes of ever reaching a two-state solution, and potentially return the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the forefront of hot issues that have the Middle East in tumult.

Kerry long ago gave up on the timetable for reaching an accord in nine months, but now even a scaled-back goal of arriving at a “framework agreement” setting the parameters for final-status negotiations by the end of April is under threat.

To try to get a very wobbly peace-talks train back on track, Kerry abruptly switched plans and traveled from Paris to Israel Sunday night for talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah Monday and Tuesday. In Paris to meet – for four hours, as it turned out – with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss ideas for de-escalating the Ukraine crisis, Kerry had been scheduled to attend a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Tuesday and Wednesday.    

The immediate crisis stems from Israel’s balking at carrying out the promised release of a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners over the weekend. Israel had agreed last summer to a series of four staggered prisoner releases over the nine months of negotiations in exchange for a Palestinian commitment not to go to the United Nations and other international institutions – including the International Criminal Court – as a unilateral effort to boost Palestinian legitimacy and international condemnation of Israel.

But now Israel is holding off on what was to be the release of the last 26 of a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners until it gets a commitment that the faltering peace talks will continue after the last batch of prisoners is set free. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Kerry in recent phone conversations that his government risked collapse over the prisoner release, according to the Israeli press. To go ahead with the release, Mr. Netanyahu reportedly said, he would need additional commitments from the Palestinians.

On Sunday, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that the prisoner deal “either … will be finalized or it will be derailed,” and that “there will be no deal without Israel receiving something in return.” That “something” is thought to be assurances that the negotiating process would continue after the release.

As Kerry met Monday evening with Netanyahu, speculation swirled that the US might agree to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for Israel’s commitment to move forward on the Palestinian prisoner release.  Israeli officials have long sought the release of Mr. Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel and sentenced to life in prison (Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995).

At the White House Monday, spokesman Jay Carney neither confirmed nor rejected rumors of a Pollard release, saying, “He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving he sentence, and I don’t have any update on his situation.”  

Israel and the US have also been pressing the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” as part of the framework agreement that would set in motion final-status negotiations. But so far the Palestinian leadership has refused because of the implications they say such recognition would have for non-Jews living in Israel and for the so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in present-day Israel when Israel was created.

The Arab League last week voted to confirm its rejection of Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state.  

The Palestinian leadership was expected to meet Monday night to consider its response. Kerry met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week in Amman, and seemed likely to meet with him again, perhaps on Tuesday.

In announcing Kerry’s change in travel plans, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that after consultations with the US negotiating team on the ground Kerry “decided it would be productive to return to the region.”

In remarks to the press in Paris Sunday evening, Kerry said the talks are at an “important moment” and that “some judgments have to be made.”

Presumably he meant “judgments” by the two sides in the peace talks. But regional analysts – many of whom considered Kerry’s peace initiative a long shot at best from the beginning – say it is also time for a judgment from the US on whether it makes sense, given the positions of the two sides, to push ahead with talks after April.

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