Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to discuss the American framework accord for the continuation of peace talks with Israel until the fourth and final group of Palestinian prisoners is released, a Palestinian source told AFP on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Kuwait, Abbas said he was still waiting to receive a formal framework proposal from US Secretary of State John Kerry. He said there have been no talks on extending negotiations beyond the April deadline, adding that the coming month would be "a very important period."
Kerry had to interrupt his visit to Europe with President Barack Obama to jet to Amman on Tuesday seeking to rescue his faltering Middle East peace bid, amid fears Israel may scrap plans to free Palestinian prisoners.
According to the Palestinian official, Kerry has asked Abbas to send the PLO's chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, to Rome for a meeting with the secretary of state, but Abbas refused.
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Upon arriving in Jordan, Kerry first held talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II before dinner later with Abbas as he presses his bid to "continue to narrow the gaps" between the two sides, his spokeswoman said.
Kerry also spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the three-hour flight from Rome, US officials said; the two were due to speak against after Kerry dined with Abbas.
Under a July deal for the relaunch of the peace negotiations, Israel said it would release 104 Palestinian terrorists held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims via the UN.
Israel has so far freed 78 prisoners and is due to release the fourth and final tranche on March 29, including 14 Israeli Arabs.
But there are growing fears Netanyahu's cabinet may block the move. Before it releases the prisoners, Israel wants to be assured Abbas won't abandon the US-brokered talks.
"Israel is trying to worm its way out of releasing the prisoners. They will be held responsible for any repercussions of this," Palestinian minister of prisoners affairs Issa Qaraqe told Voice of Palestine radio.
If the releases do not go ahead as scheduled this weekend, Palestinian leaders are threatening to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations.
US officials have long cautioned that the release of the last batch of prisoners will be difficult and have been given no assurance by Israel that it will go ahead.
The Palestinians also won key backing Wednesday from the Arab League for their refusal to bow to Netanyahu's demand to recognize Israel as "the nation state of the Jewish people."
"We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state," said the Arab League declaration, issued at the end of a two-day summit in Kuwait City attended by Abbas.
But the Israeli side hit back that Abbas's stand on the issue "could torpedo the peace process."
The Palestinian leader had "boasted that he refuses to even discuss recognizing the Jewish state, once again parading rejectionism as virtue," a senior Israeli official said.
"By reiterating his adversarial maximalist position, Abbas is undermining President Obama's vision of peace and torpedoing Secretary Kerry's efforts to move the process forward," he added.
Kerry, who coaxed the two sides back to the negotiations last July after a three-year freeze, is aiming to reach a framework to guide the talks going forward as an April 29 deadline for a deal looms.
Israel also wants the Palestinians to agree to extend the talks beyond April 29, warning a failure to do so would scupper the final prisoner release.
The prisoners are not the only issue jeopardizing the peace talks, and the bitter atmosphere has been further muddied by Israeli pressure on the US to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as well as by Israel's continued settlement building.
Army Radio reported Wednesday the US had offered to release Pollard, who was arrested in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States for Israel, in return for Palestinian prisoners being freed.
But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki shot down the report, saying: "There are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard."
He was convicted "of a very serious crime, was sentenced to life in prison and is serving his sentence," she added.
Kerry was due to stay overnight in Amman, before flying back to Rome early on Thursday to join up again with Obama for a meeting with Pope Francis.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.