Israel canceled the already postponed release of 26 Palestinian prisoners in the latest blow to faltering peace talks, saying the move was a response to renewed efforts by Palestinians to gain recognition at the United Nations.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, one of Israel’s two chief negotiators, told Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat of the decision in a meeting earlier today, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks.
Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister for prisoner affairs, said halting the release “closes all doors to further peace opportunities, and it’s a blow to the American efforts that have been exerted till this moment.”
Israel has freed three previous groups of prisoners since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought the two sides back to the negotiating table in July, and missed a deadline this week for a fourth release. Kerry, speaking earlier today before the Israeli announcement, said it was premature to conclude that talks have broken down, and called on both sides to put aside their rancor and work harder on a peace agreement.
“You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises,” Kerry said in Algiers. “The leaders need to lead.”
Kerry talked by telephone later today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to State Department officials.
After Israel initially postponed the prisoner release, Abbas retaliated by resuming efforts to win further recognition of a state of Palestine, over Israeli and U.S. objections.
The Palestinians applied at the UN to join 15 international treaties and conventions, in a calibrated bid to protest the stalemate in efforts without risking a cutoff in American aid.
Kerry said the fine print of the UN applications showed the Palestinians kept a door open. The Palestinians, who say they promised to suspend such efforts in exchange for the prisoner releases, didn’t seek status as a member-state at the world body or any of its agencies.
Under U.S. law, full statehood recognition before UN organizations would require a cutoff of about $300 million a year in American aid to the Palestinian Authority. Other laws bar U.S. funding for any UN organization that gives the Palestinians statehood rights, which in turn can lead to the suspension of U.S. voting rights for failure to pay dues.
During peace talks, Kerry has pressed Abbas to hold off on pursuing statehood goals at international agencies or filing complaints against Israel with the International Criminal Court.
“This is basically a first shot against Israel that ‘we are renewing the war, we are renewing the battlefield at the United Nations,’’ Einat Wilf, a former member of the Israeli Knesset told reporters yesterday on a conference call organized by the Israel Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. ‘‘It’s still not the heavy gun.’’
The Palestinian Authority gained the right to sign on to multilateral treaties after its status at the UN was elevated to observer non-member state in November 2012. It applied to organizations yesterday on behalf of the ‘‘State of Palestine,’’ a status that is under negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians in the talks over a two-state solution.
The applications didn’t include the Rome Statute, which would let Palestinians take cases alleging Israeli war crimes to the international court.
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