US Secretary of State John Kerry has met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the second time in less than 12 hours in an effort to salvage stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.
Kerry broke into his travel schedule on Monday for a flying visit to Jerusalem and headed straight back to Europe after his early morning discussions with Netanyahu on Tuesday.
There was no immediate word of any breakthrough and a Palestinian official said Kerry might return to the region late on Wednesday to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The negotiations appeared to be on the brink of collapse at the weekend, when Israel failed to press ahead with a promised release of several dozen Palestinian prisoners.
Israel wanted assurances the Palestinians would not abandon the talks, aimed at ending the decades-old Middle East conflict, when an initial deadline for an accord expires on April 29.
A freeze on construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, land Palestinians want with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem for a future state, was also being discussed, officials said.
Israel, sources said, would go ahead with the promised release of a fourth group of Palestinians, the last among the 104 it pledged to free as a confidence-building measure under an agreement that led to the renewal of the talks in July.
A source quoted by Reuters news agency said Kerry wanted Netanyahu to call a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to sign off on the proposed deal. Israeli officials declined to comment.
Palestinians regard those jailed by Israel as heroes in a quest for an independent state. Israel views them as terrorists.
US officials have said that a deal allowing negotiations to continue could also include the release of Jonathan Pollard, who has spent more than 25 years in an American jail after being convicted of spying for Israel.
Akiva Eldar, columnist for Al-Monitor, told that Al Jazeera Pollard is considered an important element in the negotiations for all three parties. "It is needed in order to show that Israel is not giving anything away for free [and] that there is a kind of a trade-off. Jonathan Pollard is the joker or than ace in this game between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the US. It's the most important bargaining chip that you the Americans have been holding for many years," Eldar said.
Sources close to the talks, who declined to be identified, said that under the proposed arrangement, Pollard would be freed before the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins in two weeks' time.
Kerry, who has visited the region more than 10 times in little more than a year as he strives to secure a peace deal, held talks separately upon his arrival in Jerusalem with Netanyahu and with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The focus of his mission appears to have shifted from reaching an elusive framework agreement by April 29, including general principles for a final peace accord, to simply keeping both sides talking beyond that previously set deadline.
Kerry is due in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday for a NATO ministerial meeting that will focus on Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies