US Secretary of State John Kerry has travelled to Jordan to meet with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in a last ditch effort to rescue the unravelling Middle East peace process.
Mr Kerry has also been in almost daily contact with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during this crucial period, according to Israeli officials.
The troubled peace negotiations launched last summer are threatening to come apart because of a dispute over the release by Israel of the fourth and final instalment of Palestinian prisoners it committed itself to before the talks started. In exchange, the Palestinians promised they would not turn to the UN to redress grievances over the occupation and to promote their statehood drive during the negotiating period, which is due to expire at the end of April.
But now, with no tangible signs of progress despite repeated visits by Mr Kerry, Israel is making clear there will be no release of the 26 prisoners unless the Palestinians first commit to an additional year of negotiations and refrain from UN action.
Release of prisoners, many of whom were convicted of murder, is unpopular in Israel and the government appears hesitant to pay the political price of doing it only to see Mr Abbas turn to the UN weeks later.
Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, would not comment when asked if the release would go ahead as planned on Saturday. Israeli media reports spoke of a likely one to two-week delay.
Israel’s setting the condition for release has evoked a sharp Palestinian reaction. “If they do not release the prisoners, it means we are free to go to the UN immediately,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Asked whether the Palestinians would agree to extend the talks beyond April, Ms. Ashrawi responded: “It depends on their not doing anything prejudicial including settlement, annexation of Jerusalem and their agreeing to the release of more prisoners and accepting terms of reference that they are violating daily.”
“We are not in the business of negotiating in order to give Israel a free hand and of postponing in order to give Israel more room to build settlements and violate agreements.”
However, analysts say Mr Abbas may approve an extension of the talks in order to avoid blame for their collapse and to keep vital American and European aid flowing to the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli officials have ruled out a settlement freeze. They accused Mr Abbas of “torpedoing” Mr Kerry’s efforts by making a statement at the Arab League summit in Kuwait this week in which he said that he would not “even discuss” Israel’s demand for recognition that it is a Jewish state.
Meanwhile, the State Department dismissed recent Israeli media speculation that Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in the US after being convicted in 1987 of espionage for Israel, could be released in exchange for Israel agreeing to set free the fourth batch of prisoners.