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Diplomacy

Kerry takes time-out from Middle East talks, heads for NATO summit

US Secretary of State John Kerry has left the Middle East after two meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on stalled peace talks. Kerry will likely pick up the Mideast crisis talks after a NATO summit.

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Israel for unscheduled meetings aimed at keeping Middle East peace talks afloat, John Kerry has left Jerusalem and is headed for a NATO summit in Brussels.

The NATO summit has been scheduled for some time, and Kerry was already in Paris at the weekend when a fresh crisis developed in the Middle East: Palestinian officials threatened to cease talks with Israel.

Israel had agreed to free 104 prisoners in four stages, but following its refusal to release the fourth and final group of detainees on March 29, Palestinian officials warned that Israel "would bear the consequences" of its decisions. The deal - agreed to in July 2013 - brought the two sides back to the negotiating table after a long hiatus.

Kerry first met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. A planned meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas did not take place but has been rescheduled for Wednesday following the conclusion of the NATO summit. Kerry did meet with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat at his Jerusalem hotel on Monday night. Before departing Jerusalem on Tuesday, Kerry held further talks with Netanyahu.

The Palestinians have said that if Israel does not quickly change its decision about the release of the final set of prison it will be an end to peace talks.

Possible bargaining chip

A key to the negotiations, according to US officials, may be the release of American-Israeli Jonathan Pollard. He is currently serving a life sentences in the US after being convicted of spying for Israel.

The unnamed sources, cited in news agency reports, say Pollard would be released before the Jewish holiday of Passover under the proposed arrangement. Passover begins in two weeks.

State department officials refused to comment on any speculation that Pollard may be released.

If he were freed, however, many see it as the concession Netanyahu needs to gain backing for the release of the rest of the Palestinian prisoners.

mz/tj (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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