Kerry holds second round of talks in Israel

Palestinians gave Kerry a 24-hour deadline to come up with a solution to a row over prisoner releases

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In an effort to push forward faltering Middle East peace efforts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday held a second round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu..

The talks came after Kerry made a surprise trip to Israel to keep the talks on track amid a bitter tussle over the expected release of Palestinian prisoners.

But there was confusion as talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were cancelled Monday when a meeting with Netanyahu dragged on too late. Kerry met instead with the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

Sources close to the talks have revealed that the U.S. is discussing the release of U.S.-born Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as a way to unblock the talks impasse.

Pollard was arrested in Washington in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel. One proposal could see Pollard freed before the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins in mid-April.

In exchange, Israel would release the final batch of prisoners as well as another group of detainees, and the sides would agree to extend the talks.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki however refused to be drawn saying: "Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I do not have any update for you on his status."

The Palestinians on Monday gave Kerry a 24-hour deadline to come up with a solution to the row over the release of the Palestinian prisoners, or threatened to go to U.N. bodies to press their claims for statehood.

By returning to the region, Kerry is indicating either that he believes there is room to save the talks, possibly through a commitment from both sides to extend the negotiations, or to send a message that U.S. patience is not endless.

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.

(With AFP)

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