Kerry returns to Middle East to push flailing peace talks

PARIS Mon Mar 31, 2014 1:21pm BST

1 of 4. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks back before his flight leaving Paris March 31, 2014. Kerry broke from his travel schedule for the second time in a week to rush back to the Middle East on Monday to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The U.S.-brokered negotiations faced a crisis at the weekend when Israel, saying it was seeking a Palestinian commitment to continue negotiations beyond an end-April deadline, failed to press ahead with a promised release of Palestinian prisoners.

Credit: Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry broke from his travel schedule for the second time in a week to rush back to the Middle East on Monday to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The U.S.-brokered negotiations faced a crisis at the weekend when Israel, saying it was seeking a Palestinian commitment to continue negotiations beyond an end-April deadline, failed to press ahead with a promised release of Palestinian prisoners.

"After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

Kerry had interrupted a visit to Rome last week to go to Amman for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to convince him to prolong the talks beyond an April 29 deadline for a deal and to press Israel to release the prisoners.

Officials said he was expected to travel to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the coming hours.

By returning to the region, Kerry is indicating he believes there is room to save the talks, possibly by a commitment from both sides to extend the negotiations, or to issue a message that U.S. patience is not endless.

Kerry was scheduled to attend a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was not immediately clear whether he would still be able to make the first day.

Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed last July after a three-year break. In the absence of any obvious breakthroughs, Kerry said he wanted a clear framework to enable discussions to continue in the coming months.

Officials have said the two sides remain far apart even on the draft framework. However, the State Department's Psaki said on Monday the Israelis and Palestinians "have both made tough choices" over the past eight months.

"As we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve," she said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Crispian Balmer)

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