JERUSALEM — American mediators held urgent contacts with Israeli and Palestinian officials Sunday in hopes of salvaging troubled Mideast peace talks — searching for a formula to bring the sides back together and extend the negotiations beyond a late-April deadline.
Officials from all sides said diplomacy has picked up over the past 24 hours, and an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists, said talks with the Palestinians via the Americans were going on throughout the day.
With the sides unable to agree on the terms of a promised Israeli prisoner release, the negotiations appear to face a risk of collapse in the coming weeks. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Paris, was considering an unscheduled return to the Middle East on Monday in search of a formula to extend the negotiations.
The issue of the prisoner release “could be resolved or it could fall apart” in the next few days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told a closed meeting of officials from his Likud Party, according to meeting participants. “In any case, there won’t be any deal without getting something in return.” The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed to the media.
Under heavy pressure from Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last July to hold nine months of peace talks, setting a late-April deadline for a deal. When that became unrealistic, Kerry scaled back his goals and said he would aim for a preliminary “framework” agreement by April, with the goal of continuing negotiations through the end of the year to iron out the final details.
of a deal.
But even that more modest goal has run into trouble due to a snag over the prisoner release. When the talks began last summer, Israel promised to free 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages, with the final release coming by the end of March. After carrying out the first three releases, Israel has balked at releasing the final group without a Palestinian commitment to extend talks.
Israel’s defense minister said Sunday that “this is a critical week for the Israeli-Palestinian issue.” Moshe Yaalon was speaking after meeting visiting US military chief General Martin Dempsey.
Yaalon said Israel appreciates the United States’ “commitment and contribution” in facilitating talks. Israeli officials say they are under no obligation to carry out the final release because of what they say is a Palestinian failure to negotiate in good faith.