Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved forward with punitive steps in response to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s application to international bodies, ordering government officials not to meet with their Palestinian counterparts.
“In response to the Palestinian violation of their commitments under peace talks… Israel government ministers have been told to refrain from meeting their Palestinian counterparts,” an official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The order did not ban contact between the Defense Ministry and the PA, which would have hampered security cooperation in the West Bank, according to Israel news site Ynet on Wednesday. Peace negotiations are also unaffected, the site reported.
Low-level cooperation in the field will also continue, a senior Israeli official said, according to the Haaretz daily.
Mohammed al-Madani, a Fatah official and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s contact person with Israeli society, told The Times of Israel that he was unaware of the details of the Israeli decision.
“If true, this decision is mistaken,” Madani said. “It’s impossible to sever the ties between Israelis and Palestinians. “We must continue to have normal relations in order to reach a just and lasting peace.”
The move by Netanyahu came as peace efforts between the sides have hit an impasse amid a series of escalating moves by Jerusalem and Ramallah.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that the peace talks started to crumble only after Israel refused to release a fourth round of prisoners 10 days ago.
“The prisoners were not released by Israel on the day they were supposed to be released and then another day passed and another day, and then 700 [new housing] units were approved in Jerusalem and then poof — that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said.
Cutting off ministerial contact is one of a series of low-level sanctions Israel is reportedly pursuing against the PA in response to the crisis in peace talks, according to press reports. Other measures being considered include canceling permits for the Palestinian telecommunications company al-Watanya and withholding tax revenues.
On Sunday, Netanyahu said that unilateral moves would be met with the same, alluding to Abbas’s decision last week to apply for membership to 15 international treaty organizations, some of which are tied to the United Nations.
The Palestinians said the move came in response to Israel’s refusal to free a final round of prisoners from the 104 inmates Jerusalem agreed to release before peace talks began in July, and a tender. Israel said it would not free them without a commitment to continue talks beyond the April 29 deadline.
Ramallah was also incensed by the republication of tenders for 708 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
In comments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, Kerry also deemed Abbas’s actions “unhelpful.”
Both sides say they want to continue talks but so far efforts and bringing the parties together have yielded few results.
Madani, the Palestinian official, said that Palestinians are still obligated to continuing negotiations with Israel until the end of April.
“We hope these negotiations result in a positive outcome,” he said.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met on Sunday and Monday with US mediator Martin Indyk.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said gaps remained between the sides after the Monday meeting.
Despite the impasse, world leaders have continued to express hope and urge the two parties to return to the negotiating table.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking at the annual dinner of the Israel-France Chamber of Commerce Tuesday night, said that there was still a “window of opportunity” to achieve an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and the world should not allow it to close, adding that France and other European countries were continuing to work with the US to revive the talks.
Also on Tuesday, Chinese President President Xi Jinping urged Israel to make “brave decisions” for peace with the Palestinians.
“At present, the Israeli-Palestinian talks process has entered a crucial stage; there are opportunities and also many difficulties,” Xi said.
“[China] hopes that Israel keeps in mind the broader picture of peace, shows strategic wisdom, makes brave decisions as early as possible, and pushes, along with the international community and Palestinians, for substantive progress on peace talks.”
Raphael Ahren and AFP contributed to this report.