John Kerry bids to save Middle East peace deal

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan this week (Photo: AP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan this week (Photo: AP)

As the deadline for an agreement on the extension of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority neared this weekend, US Secretary of State John Kerry was in frantic talks with Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday.

A few weeks ago, the two sides were awaiting an agreement which would contain the foundations for a future peace deal.

Now Mr Kerry's efforts are focused simply on coming up with a temporary deal with Mr Abbas sufficient to allow Benjamin Netanyahu to sign off on the release of Palestinian prisoners and secure the continuation of the talks.

As an indication of the pressure the Obama Administration is under to get Mr Netanyahu’s agreement, there were even reports that the Americans were prepared to release Jonathan Pollard, the US naval intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987 and has been serving a life sentence ever since.

But neither side seem willing to concede anything. On Tuesday, at an Arab League summit, Mr Abbas reiterated his position that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was not up for debate, a position endorsed by all the Arab leaders.

And Israel made it clear that the release of the fourth tranche of prisoners, originally scheduled for the end of this week, would not be taking place until the Palestinians committed to continuing the talks beyond the original nine-month timeframe, as well as refraining from taking their case to the United Nations.

It boils down to a possible prisoner deal, which the Palestinians are claiming has been promised whether or not they proceed with the talks.

One way to sweeten the deal for them and to secure a commitment to continue the talks would be the inclusion of prisoners from East Jerusalem, a move that Israel is against but would probably agree to if Mr Pollard is indeed released by the Americans.

Despite his lengthy incarceration, successive American administrations have refused to let Mr Pollard go. On Wednesday State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that “there are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard”, a statement seen by some as less than unequivocal.

Mr Kerry has put a tremendous amount of effort into these talks and much of his prestige is riding on their continuation. Releasing one spy could well be a price he is willing to pay.

Last updated: 10:21am, March 27 2014