PARIS - US Secretary of State John Kerry broke from his travel schedule for the second time in a week to rush back to Israel on Monday to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The US-brokered negotiations faced a crisis over the weekend when Israel, saying it was seeking a Palestinian commitment to continue negotiations beyond an end-of-April deadline, delayed the fourth prisoner release to which it had committed to in previous negotiations.
"After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Kerry had interrupted a visit to Rome last week to go to Amman for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to convince him to prolong the talks beyond an April 29 deadline for a deal and to press Israel to release the prisoners.
Speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers on Sunday, Netanyahu said that Israel would not make a deal to free the prisoners "without a clear benefit for Israel in return." He acknowledged that negotiations to come to an agreement could potentially "blow up."
In order to move back to the negotiations table, Israel agreed in July to release 104 terrorists convicted of crimes before the the 1993 Oslo accords in four tranches of 26 prisoners each. In return the Palestinians agreed not to pursue unilateral diplomatic actions in international forums, including taking Israel to the International Criminal Court. Israel has so far released 78 prisoners.
A deal has allegedly been reached for Israel to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by Tuesday evening after Israel missed a Saturday night deadline to free theinmates, sources in Ramallah told Palestinian news site al-Quds on Sunday, though the report also stated that the Palestinians were not expected to make additional compromises, such as agreeing to an extension of talks, in exchange for the release.
By returning to the region, Kerry may be indicating that he believes there is a chance to save the talks, possibly with commitment from both sides to extend the negotiations, or to issue a message that US patience is not without limits.
Kerry was scheduled to attend a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was not immediately clear whether he would still be able to make the first day.
Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed last July after a three-year break. In the absence of any obvious breakthroughs, Kerry said he wanted a clear framework to enable discussions to continue in the coming months.
Officials have said the two sides remain far apart even on the draft framework. However, the State Department's Psaki said on Monday the Israelis and Palestinians "have both made tough choices" over the past eight months.
"As we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve," she said.
American officials said that Kerry was expected to travel to both Israel and Ramallah in the coming hours.