Kerry to return to Middle East for talks

US secretary of state to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in renewed efforts to salvage Israeli-Palestinian talks.

US brokered negotiations appeared to be on the brink of collapse at the weekend [AP]

US Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the Middle East to continue his push to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The State Department said on Tuesday Kerry would visit Israel and the Palestinian territories, meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Kerry met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week in Jerusalem before resuming his trip to Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers discussing the Russia-Ukraine crisis. 

After seeing Abbas, he will travel to Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said.

An official close to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has said Israel may impose a partial settlement freeze to keep the peace talks alive, according to the Reuters news agency.

A halt to Israeli state-backed construction in the occupied West Bank would be part of a proposed package that includes the release of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy jailed in the United States, and hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land captured in the 1967 war and which Palestinians seek for their state, have been a major stumbling block in the talks that began in July. Most countries view those settlements as illegal.

Extend talks

The source said that in return for the Israeli steps, Palestinians would agree to extend the peace talks beyond an April 29 deadline into 2015.

Israel last imposed a partial settlement freeze in 2009 in a bid to restart negotiations.

Palestinians returned to the talks in 2010 but they collapsed within weeks after Netanyahu refused to extend the 10-month moratorium.

“The [new] settlement freeze does not include East Jerusalem, private construction or building of public institutions,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another official involved in the negotiations said the Israeli government “will adopt a policy of restraint when it comes to state tenders for construction” in the West Bank.

There was no immediate Palestinian comment on the emerging deal.

The negotiations, aimed at creating a Palestinian state and ending a decades-long conflict, have also stalled over Palestinian opposition to an Israeli demand that the country be recognised as a Jewish state.

They say this conflicts with their own narrative for nationhood.

Brink of collapse

The talks appeared to be have been on the brink of collapse at the weekend when Israel failed to press ahead with a promised release of several dozen jailed Palestinians.

Under the proposed deal, Israel would go ahead with the release of a fourth group of Palestinians, the last among the 104 it pledged to free as part of confidence-building measures under an agreement that led to the renewal of the talks.

That group of inmates includes 14 Arab citizens of Israel, a potential political obstacle for Netanyahu. Far-right members of his coalition view the release of Israeli Arabs in any deal with the Palestinians as a challenge to Israel’s sovereignty over its Arab minority – 20 percent of the population.

In addition, Israel would free 400 other Palestinian prisoners, including women and minors, who have not been convicted of killing Israelis and have almost completed their sentences.

Palestinians regard compatriots jailed by Israel as heroes in their quest for an independent state. Israel views them as terrorists.

Source: News Agencies