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Kerry heads to Israel as peace talks near collapse

A protester wearing a gas mask walks with a Palestinian flag during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel in the village of Kafr Qaddum, near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on March 9, 2012
A protester wearing a gas mask walks with a Palestinian flag during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel in the village of Kafr Qaddum, near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on March 9, 2012

The Palestinians rejected an Israeli proposal for extending negotiations on Monday as Washington's top diplomat was due to fly in on his latest mission to salvage the crisis-hit peace talks.

Shortly after US Secretary of State John Kerry took off from Paris for an unscheduled visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, a Palestinian official confirmed that Ramallah had rejected an Israeli offer to extend talks beyond an April 29 deadline.

US peace efforts are teetering on the brink of collapse after Israel refused to free a group of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners under an agreement which brought the sides back to the negotiating table in July 2013.

Speaking in Paris, a senior US official said Kerry would possibly hold meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah over Monday and Tuesday.

Kerry's arrival in Tel Aviv is likely to coincide with a 1600 GMT meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah which was called by president Mahmud Abbas to discuss the latest standoff.

Furious Palestinian officials have warned that unless Israel changes its stance on the prisoner releases, it could signal the end of the talks.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the media at the State Department in Washington, DC, on March 20, 2014
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the media at the State Department in Washington, DC, on March 20, 2014

News of Kerry's unscheduled trip was confirmed by US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said his team had been working with both parties to "agree on a path forward."

"After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region," she told reporters in Paris shortly before departing for Tel Aviv.

Washington has been fighting an uphill battle to coax the two sides into accepting a framework proposal which would extend the negotiations beyond April 29 to the end of the year.

But the question of extending the talks has become intricately tied up with the fate of the 26 prisoners.

Just a day ahead of the expected releases, Israel said it would not free detainees convicted of deadly attacks unless the Palestinians would commit to extending the negotiations.

But the Palestinians say they will not even discuss any extension of the negotiating period unless Israel frees the prisoners.

The impasse has triggered "intense" US efforts to resolve the dispute, with Kerry speaking with both sides earlier on Monday.

- Israel's 'blackmail policy' -

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting on March 30, 2014 in Jerusalem
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting on March 30, 2014 in Jerusalem

Ahead of Kerry's arrival, a Palestinian official told AFP the leadership had rejected an Israeli proposal to resolve the dispute that was laid out at a meeting of the two negotiating teams in Jerusalem on Sunday night.

"Israel made a proposal which was refused by the Palestinians," he said.

"Israel is practising a policy of blackmail and linking its agreement to releasing the fourth batch of prisoners with the Palestinians accepting to extend the negotiations," he said.

In exchange for Palestinian agreement to continue the talks, Israel had offered to free the fourth batch of detainees and to release another 420 others.

But that number would involve only common law criminals and not sick detainees, women or children. And it would not include political heavyweights.

And although the Israelis were offering a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank, it would not be extended to annexed east Jerusalem, nor would it cover construction where tenders had already been published.

"The Israeli proposal aims to continue the negotiations indefinitely, without any results, in parallel with continued settlement building," he charged, saying such policies posed a "real danger" to the peace process.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the fate of the US-brokered peace process would likely be sealed within the coming days, telling ministers: "Either the matter will be resolved or it will blow up."

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas delivers a speech in the West bank city of Ramallah, on January 11, 2014
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas delivers a speech in the West bank city of Ramallah, on January 11, 2014

And he said any deal to extend the negotiations would have to be put to the cabinet.

Also on Sunday, Kerry said the US would reserve judgement on the issues but that the time to make decisions was at hand.

"We'll see where we are tomorrow (Monday) when some judgements have to be made," he said.

It will be Kerry's first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories since early January, although he has held face-to-face meetings with both Netanyahu and Abbas in Europe and the United States.

He also met Abbas last week in Amman.

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