JERUSALEM -- American mediators contacted Israeli and Palestinian officials Sunday in hopes of salvaging troubled Mideast peace talks -- searching for a formula to bring the sides back together and extend the negotiations beyond a current late-April deadline.
Officials from all sides said diplomacy has picked up over the past 24 hours, and an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists, said talks with the Palestinians via the Americans were going on throughout the day.
With the sides unable to agree on the terms of a promised Israeli prisoner release, the negotiations appear to face a risk of collapse in the coming weeks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Paris, was weighing a return to the region to find a way out of the deadlock.
The issue of the prisoner release "could be resolved or it could fall apart" in the next few days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a closed meeting of officials from his Likud Party, according to meeting participants. "In any case, there won't be any deal without getting something in return." The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed to the media.
Under heavy pressure from Mr. Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last July to hold nine months of peace talks, setting a late-April deadline for a final agreement. When that became unrealistic, Mr. Kerry scaled back his goals and said he would aim for a preliminary "framework" agreement by April, with the goal of continuing negotiations through the end of the year to iron out the final details of a deal.
But even that more modest goal has run into trouble due to a snag over the prisoner release. When the talks began last summer, Israel promised to free 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages, with the final release coming by the end of March. After carrying out the first three releases, Israel has balked at releasing the final group without a Palestinian commitment to extend talks.
Israel's defense minister said Sunday that "this is a critical week for the Israeli-Palestinian issue." Moshe Yaalon was speaking after meeting visiting U.S. military chief Gen. Martin Dempsey. Mr. Yaalon said Israel appreciates the U.S. "commitment and contribution" in facilitating talks. Israeli officials say they are under no obligation to carry out the final release because of what they say is a Palestinian failure to negotiate in good faith.
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud Cabinet minister, said "it is clear" the release can't be carried out if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans on walking out of the talks the next day.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, confirmed that negotiations were ongoing and said Mr. Abbas was "making every possible effort" to ensure the release of the fourth group.
Mr. Kerry was in Paris to meet with his Russian counterpart for talks on the crisis in Ukraine. American officials said Mr. Kerry was considering an unscheduled return to the Middle East on Monday in search of a formula to extend the negotiations.
After brokering eight months of negotiations, Mr. Kerry has little to show for his efforts. There have been no visible signs of progress, and Israel and the Palestinians have accused each other of hindering progress.