Palestinian officials divided over status of peace talks

Palestinian officials divided over status of peace talks

Top PLO figure says he hopes Kerry renews efforts soon; prisoners minister declares 'the diplomatic track is closed'

A man holds up an image of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinians rally in the center of the West Bank city of Nablus in support of Abbas during his visit to Washington, Monday, March 17, 2014. (photo credit: Jaafar/Ashtiyeh/AFP)
A man holds up an image of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinians rally in the center of the West Bank city of Nablus in support of Abbas during his visit to Washington, Monday, March 17, 2014. (photo credit: Jaafar/Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The Palestinians are not walking away from US-led efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel, a top Palestinian official insisted Wednesday, a day after their renewed bid for international recognition of a “state of Palestine” threw Washington’s already troubled Mideast mission into further disarray.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Wednesday that the Palestinians are not turning their backs on negotiations.

“We hope that Kerry renews his efforts in the coming days,” Abed Rabbo told a news conference. “We don’t want his mission to fail.”

The PLO official also suggested that joining the 15 international conventions would not lead to dramatic changes on the ground.

“This step will affirm the status of Palestine in the international community legally and politically,” he said. “It is a good step on our way to get the recognition from the entire world of our status as a state, equal to other states, but under occupation.”

Rabbo’s remarks undermine statements from another senior Palestinian Authority official earlier Wednesday, indicating that peace talks with Israel were deadlocked and that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s unilateral application Tuesday to join 15 UN-affiliated bodies marked the end of the current round of negotiations.

Speaking to Army Radio, Palestinian Authority Prisoners Minister Issa Karake put to bed suggestions that the peace talks could continue despite Tuesday’s events, which included tenders published by Israel for 708 new East Jerusalem homes, a televised ceremony in which Abbas unilaterally signed the international treaties, and a surprise decision by US Secretary of State John Kerry to cancel a planned trip to Ramallah to push for the extension of the sputtering process.

Karake said that not only was the current round of peace talks, kick-started by Kerry in July, over, but that Abbas’s public display might be the first step in an international campaign to delegitimize Israel in retaliation for its failure to fulfill its commitment to release a fourth group of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails.

“The diplomatic track is closed and the fate of the negotiations is unknown,” Karake said. “I had hoped that these prisoners would go free, because some of them have already been in prison for 30 years. But something bad happened.” He was referring to Israel’s refusal to release the inmates as scheduled, conditioning their freedom on a Palestinian agreement to extend the talks beyond their expiration date later this month.

Already, he said, Abbas’s appeal could make Israel accountable to international institutions and organizations for its treatment of Palestinians, and particularly of prisoners.

“In terms of international law, these international institutions could choose to define the Palestinian prisoners as prisoners of war or prisoners from an occupied state, rather than as terrorists or criminals, as Israel claims when it places them under its military law,” he said.

Karake insisted that the impasse in talks stemmed from Israel’s refusal to release a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners, as agreed upon, he said, when talks resumed in July. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked that the Palestinians agree to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline before the 27 convicts were freed. Once the Palestinians agreed, Netanyahu said, the release would go ahead as planned.

Karake also demanded that Israel free Marwan Barghouti — a charismatic Palestinian leader who’s serving several life sentences for the murder of Israelis — amid reports that a deal to extend the talks past the April deadline would involve the release by the US of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, a move long sought by Israel.

The Pollard-for-prisoners deal, which was said to be in the pipeline on Tuesday afternoon, was all but put on hold after Abbas signed the appeals in a televised ceremony, reportedly in retaliation for Israel’s refusal to release the prisoners.

Immediately afterwards, Kerry, who was in Brussels at the time, canceled a trip to Ramallah to meet with Abbas, which was scheduled for Wednesday.

Despite canceling Wednesday’s meeting, Kerry said it was too early to write off the latest round of talks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and State Department officials said that the US negotiating team, led by Martin Indyk, was still on the ground in Israel.

However, The New York Times quoted a senior US official as saying Kerry’s decision reflected the growing impatience in the White House towards the Middle East peace process, which had once again become mired.

The official said the Obama administration believes Kerry’s efforts had “reached their limit,” and that now Israel and the Palestinians must “find a way out of the dead end” on their own.

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil contributed to this report.

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