U.S.-brokered Middle East peace talks foundered as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to pursue a bid for statehood at the United Nations after Israel failed to meet a deadline to release prisoners.
Secretary of State John Kerry canceled a plan to return to the region today for a meeting with Abbas, according to U.S. officials. The Palestinian leader said in Ramallah late yesterday that he’ll seek to join 15 UN bodies, a step he had put on hold during talks on a two-state solution with Israel.
Kerry is seeking a formula for extending the negotiations beyond the end of April, the deadline he had set. They have faltered over issues including the prisoner delays and Palestinian demands for a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Kerry said the talks haven’t broken down irrevocably.
“It’s completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment,” he said in Brussels, where he attended a NATO meeting after leaving Israel yesterday. “My team is on the ground and will continue to meet with the parties.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry will conduct several calls with foreign counterparts and the U.S. Middle East negotiating team while in Brussels.
The latest hurdles provided a fresh reminder that a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians remains a distant hope.
The U.S. is “willing to be a facilitator in this process, but the leaders on both sides have to make the decisions, not us,” Kerry said.
Israel agreed last year to free 104 Palestinian security prisoners in four installments, and missed the deadline for the final releases yesterday. Israeli officials said they were concerned that Palestinians would break off talks immediately after. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that Israel won’t free the last prisoners unless it’s clearly getting something in return, Army Radio reported on March 30.
“We agreed to delay going to the UN for nine months in return for the release of prisoners,” Abbas said yesterday. “What we see now is delay and more delays.”
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry has begun submitting documents to the UN needed to request membership of international bodies, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said today.
“The decision to move ahead with these steps is clear,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Abbas, said in Ramallah today. “But we don’t want to see Kerry’s efforts fail, and we will continue to work together in order that they succeed.”
The U.S. had sought to revive the peace process with a plan including the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American naval intelligence analyst found guilty in 1987 of passing secrets to Israel, according to officials involved in negotiations.
Kerry and Netanyahu have discussed Pollard, according to a U.S. official. The two met in Jerusalem yesterday and the previous day.
Another official who is familiar with the talks said the proposed deal would see Pollard freed before the Passover holiday on April 14. In return, Israel would meet some Palestinian demands. It would expand the previously agreed release of prisoners to include an additional 400 people and refrain from issuing tenders for new housing construction in West Bank settlements.
Previously approved construction and tenders for non-residential projects would continue, while there would be no freeze in east Jerusalem. Israel would call a Cabinet meeting and vote on the proposal only after the conditions were made final through Palestinian approval, according to the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks.
The plan falls short of Palestinian demands for a total halt on new building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqi also said yesterday that Israel must free an additional 1,000 prisoners to keep the talks going beyond this month.