CAIRO (AP) — The head of the Arab League said Thursday he is confident that Israel and the Palestinians soon will resolve a crisis over the release of long-held Palestinian prisoners and extend their U.S.-brokered peace negotiations beyond an April deadline.
Nabil Elaraby told The Associated Press that the April 29 deadline would be extended and rejected the idea that the talks have failed to make progress.
"I believe that negotiations are going to be resumed for several months and we hope that this will be the end of it," Elaraby said at the Nile-side Cairo headquarters of the Arab League.
Elaraby, a longtime Egyptian diplomat, did not elaborate, but he did say that he "had contact" with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading the talks.
As Elaraby spoke, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for the fourth consecutive day with U.S. mediators trying to break the impasse.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that "the gaps are narrowing" between the two sides, but it's premature to say the negotiations will continue beyond April 29.
Palestinian officials said the atmosphere had improved from early in the week. But "the gap between the sides is still wide on all the issues," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Cairo with Egyptian leaders and held talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Elaraby also met with Ashton.
Elaraby sharply criticized Israel in the interview for continuing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem's eastern sector, areas captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Palestinians as part of a future state, along with the Gaza Strip.
"Israel is the only country in the world that sees time to be of strategic, not tactical, importance so it can change conditions on the ground," he said. "They want to gain time and they will continue to do so."
He said an Arab League peace plan first announced more than a decade ago remained "one of the main vehicles" for achieving a settlement, but Israel has ignored it.
"Israel did not react positively or negatively to the plan. It just disregards the plan," he said. The blueprint for a settlement envisages an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territory it occupied in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state in exchange for the recognition of Israel by all Arab states.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said little publicly about the Arab peace plan. But he objects to key aspects of the plan, including accepting Israel's pre-1967 borders as the basis of a future border and the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. The plan calls for a "just settlement" of the refugee issue.
Under heavy pressure from Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians resumed negotiations last July, aiming to reach a final peace deal within nine months. With little to show for his efforts, Kerry scaled back his goal to reaching a "framework" deal by the April deadline and then extend negotiations through the end of the year.
Even that more modest goal has been elusive. Kerry is now merely trying to get the sides to continue talking past April 29.
Under the terms of the current talks, Israel agreed to release 104 of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners it holds in four groups. In exchange, the Palestinians suspended their campaign for international recognition of the "state of Palestine" in U.N. and other international bodies.
The talks snagged when Israel failed to carry out the fourth and final promised prisoner release late last month. It then approved plans to build 700 new homes in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians responded by signing letters of accession to join 15 international conventions.
Israel has since imposed a series of sanctions on the Palestinians — halting high-level contacts and blocking the transfer of advanced mobile-phone equipment to the Gaza Strip. It also says it will not carry out the final prisoner release.
Israel initially balked at the release of the last batch of prisoners because it wanted the Palestinians to commit to an extension of the negotiations before the release took place. Also, the release was to include 14 Arab Israelis from Jerusalem and a native of Syria's Golan Heights, captured in 1967 and later annexed by Israel. Israel has resisted including Israeli Arabs in a deal, saying it would be a dangerous precedent for Abbas to be representing Israeli citizens.
Elaraby's comments came a day after Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League blamed Israel for the lack of progress in the peace talks.
Elaraby also spoke about the turmoil in his native Egypt and other Arab nations caught up in the Arab Spring revolts since late 2010. He said it was too early to judge the outcome of the uprisings.
"Don't judge the Arab Spring at this phase of it. Let us wait until the end to see how it develops," said Elaraby, a career diplomat and a former foreign minister.
In Egypt, the military-backed government has arrested more than 16,000 people and killed hundreds in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. The government accuses the group of fomenting violence, a claim the Brotherhood denies.
"There are certain excesses in responding to violent actions that should be curtailed, as a matter of fact, and should not continue," Elaraby said.
"But as long as you are moving toward democracy and a constitutional form of government, a price has to be paid," he said, alluding to a new constitution passed in January and presidential elections to be held next month.
He also spoke of the Arab league's limitations in handling the Syria conflict, which has claimed at least 150,000 lives and displaced millions since March 2011.
The League, he said, did everything it could within and beyond the limitations of its 1945 charter, including measures that had never been taken before, like sending cease-fire monitors to Syria and slapping sanctions on President Bashar Assad's regime.
But he said the charter needs to be amended to give the League "more flexibility, more operational possibilities and mechanisms."
He said the Syrian opposition would take Syria's seat starting with a League ministerial meeting scheduled for September, but the capacity of the Syria representative has yet to be decided.
The opposition was given Syria's seat in an Arab League summit held in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar last year. But in this year's summit in Kuwait last month, several nations blocked the League from giving the opposition the seat.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.