Israeli Ministers Cut Off Meetings With PalestiniansCalev Ben-David and Jonathan Ferziger
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered cabinet ministers to stop meeting with their Palestinian counterparts, a government official said, hours after the U.S. blamed Israel for the breakdown of peace talks.
Israeli government officials have been told to refrain from meeting their Palestinian counterparts because the Palestinians violated commitments made under the talks, the official said. Israel also is considering a proposal to hold back three-quarters of the $100 million in taxes it collects monthly on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, arguing the money supports terrorism, according to the official.
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the announcement of 708 new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem had derailed eight months of Mideast peace talks. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said the sides were closer to resolving differences over a delayed Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners when “700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment.”
While Kerry said that both sides took “unhelpful actions,” some Israeli officials fumed at his suggestion that Israel’s April 1 announcement of settlement construction caused the talks to collapse.
“Israel will never apologize for building in Jerusalem,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is the third-biggest faction in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, said in a Facebook post. “Construction in Jerusalem is no ‘poof,’ construction in Jerusalem is Zionism,” said Bennett, whose pro-settlement faction controls the Housing Ministry and opposes any peace deal that creates a Palestinian state.
Shortly after Kerry spoke to lawmakers, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a statement saying that he was “crystal clear that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game.” Today, she told reporters that Israel’s cancellation of ministerial-level meetings was “unfortunate.”
“We believe that cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has provided benefits to both sides,” Psaki said. “We continue to urge both sides to take steps that contribute to a conducive environment for peace.”
Nimer Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Voice of Palestine Radio that Israeli punitive actions against the Palestinians “are intended as a message to the Americans because of John Kerry’s statements to Congress.”
Under the plan to cut aid, Israel would deduct an amount equal to the $75 million the Palestinian Authority pays to the families of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom have been convicted of murder and other violent crimes, according to the Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss government deliberations.
Bennett also sent a letter to Netanyahu calling for Israel’s annexation of the largest West Bank settlements, including Maale Adumim, Efrat, Beit-El and Ariel. The government has sought in negotiations to give up parts of its sovereign territory to a future Palestinian state in exchange for retaining those settlements.
More than eight months of talks, accompanied by barrages of mutual recriminations, went off the rails last week after Israel didn’t go through with the last of four promised releases of Palestinian prisoners, then announced the settlement plans. The Palestinians, who want to establish a future capital in east Jerusalem, retaliated by resuming their statehood campaign outside negotiations, applying in the name of the state of Palestine to join 15 international accords.
“The Palestinians will not withdraw their application to join UN organizations,” Hamad said. “Israel is responsible for such moves because we had commitments and Israel didn’t honor them.”
The breakdown came as the sides approached the April 29 expiration of the nine months of negotiations they consented to, leaving Kerry’s efforts to extend his peace mission in tatters. His original aspiration when he brought Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table in July after almost three years was to reach a final accord by the end of this month.
Kerry met in Washington today with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said last week that “Israel has done all that it can to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and the ball is now in their court.”
Appearing alongside Kerry at the State Department, Liberman said “unilateral” steps by the Palestinians will undermine the talks.
Kerry said that “both parties indicate they would like to find a way to go forward in the talks. We obviously want to see that happen.”
Kerry’s efforts have received some support in Netanyahu’s government from parties who support talks to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Environment Minister Amir Peretz, speaking today on Army Radio, accused Bennett’s Jewish Home of “playing a double game” by trying to sabotage Kerry’s initiative from within the government.
“They don’t stop trying to do everything they can to throw cold water on the process, if possible to blow it up, in order that the people of Israel completely lose all hope,” said Peretz, whose Hatenuah party is headed by Israel’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
Kerry told the Senate panel that leaders on both sides said they want the negotiations to continue, and U.S. mediators are talking to them.
“I’m not going to suggest anything is imminent, but one always has to remain hopeful in this very difficult, complicated process,” Kerry said.