US battles to salvage collapsing Israeli-Palestinian talks

US battles to salvage collapsing Israeli-Palestinian talks

Kerry calls Abbas, after PA president applies to join UN-related treaties; Indyk arranges meeting with Livni and Erekat

Peace negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013  (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Peace negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

The United States was battling Wednesday night to save Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was accused by Israel of breaching his commitments by applying to join 15 UN-related and other international treaties and conventions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who canceled plans to fly in for talks with Abbas in Ramallah after the PA leader signed the treaty applications on Tuesday night, telephoned Abbas on Wednesday and was reported to have asked him to “keep the doors of negotiations open.”

The US State Department said that Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as to the Palestinian leader on Wednesday morning.

Kerry’s special envoy Martin Indyk, meanwhile, convened emergency talks Wednesday night between the two sides’ chief negotiators, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the PA’s Saeb Erekat.

Livni termed Abbas’s applications to join the 15 treaties and conventions, which were formally submitted to UN and other officials on Wednesday morning, “a breach of [his] commitment” not to apply to UN bodies while the negotiations were continuing. “It harms Palestinian interests,” she said of the move. “If they want a state, they must understand it must pass through the negotiating room.”

Israeli officials were quoted earlier Wednesday saying Abbas had “torpedoed” a nascent, complex, three-way deal under which Israel would have freed a final batch of 26-30 long-term Palestinian terror convicts and also released 400 more Palestinian security prisoners not guilty of violent crimes, peace talks would have extended beyond the current April 29 deadline, and the US would have released American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Still, Livni said she believed talks would continue despite the crisis. “We repeat and pledge that we will continue to fight for peace and stand like a fortified wall against the extremists, in the government as well, who are attempting to pass extreme legislation,” she said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin lambasted Livni for meeting with Erekat, saying it was “a disgrace to the state of Israel.”

“The time has come to stop being the go-to sucker of the Middle East,” he said. “I call on the prime minister and Minister Livni to end the entire negotiation process so long as Abbas doesn’t withdras his request from the United Nations, and unilaterally implement the many measures Israel has in order to convince the Palestinian leadership that it doesn’t pay for them to fight us in the international arena.”

State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said that she was not aware of the plans for Livni and Erekat to meet, and refused to implicate Abbas’s move as the sole factor in Kerry’s decision to cancel his Wednesday meeting.

Harf had told reporters Tuesday that Kerry would still travel to the region, even after Abbas announced that he would seek the admission of the State of Palestine to over one dozen international organizations. But shortly after Harf concluded her press briefing, overseas members of Kerry’s team confirmed that the trip had been canceled. Harf would not answer questions Wednesday as to whether the State Department had been warned before Abbas made his Tuesday treaties and conventions move.

“Over the last 24 hours there have been unhelpful actions taken on both sides,” Harf said, described a growing “sense over the last 36 hours that we didn’t think it was a conducive environment for the secretary to travel there right now.”

Similarly, Harf would not detail which Israeli actions the State Department defined as so “unhelpful” as to justify a cancellation of Kerry’s trip. Although the Palestinians had complained in recent days that Israel did not release prisoners last weekend as agreed, Kerry’s Tuesday morning meeting with Netanyahu went ahead as planned even after the proposed release date had passed.

Harf said that the coming days represented a critical stage for the talks. “This is one of the points in which both sides must make tough choices,” Harf warned, adding that both sides “have made courageous decisions in the past” but that “we can’t make the tough decisions for them, they need to do it for themselves.”

Acknowledging that “it’s an easy story to write that making Middle East peace is hard,” Harf also emphasized that “talks are not at a dead end. There is still a chance to move the process forward.” During the past eight months, the negotiations had succeeded in “narrowing gaps” between the parties, she argued, but would not specify on which topics.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, said he did not know “if this is a real crisis or an imagined one” but that “the ball is in the Palestinians’ court.” Should the Palestinians choose not to resume negotiations, Israel need not run after them with conciliatory gestures, he said. “If you don’t want negotiations, that’s your decision,” he said.

Liberman also said he would not vote for any deal that included freeing Israeli-Arab prisoners.

Netanyahu issued no immediate official response to Abbas’s move. But unnamed officials in Jerusalem were quoted by Channel 2 news saying Abbas’s application to join the 15 international treaties and conventions represented a “major breach” of his understandings with Israel and the US over peace negotiations, and that it indicated that there was now “almost no chance” of a Pollard-for-prisoners deal enabling the continuation of peace talks.

Netanyahu was reported by Channel 2 to have mustered a cabinet majority in the course of Tuesday for a Pollard-for-prisoners deal, and to have been “shocked” to see the televised ceremony in which Abbas signed off on the various letters of accession.

Palestinian officials denied that applying to join the treaties and conventions marked a breach of understandings, and said the PA was committed to continuing talks until the April 29 deadline. “This is the fulfillment of Palestine’s right and has nothing to do with negotiations or the reaching of an agreement,” the PLO’s negotiations department said in a statement.

Channel 2’s diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal said that Kerry, who claimed on Tuesday that Abbas had not breached peace understandings because he had not sought to join UN-related agencies, seemed to be trying to “whitewash” the PA president’s move. While Kerry claimed on Tuesday that “None of the agencies that President Abbas signed tonight involve the UN,” most of the treaties and conventions are in fact related to UN agencies.

Israeli Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari noted that the Palestinians had “heavier” diplomatic weapons in their armory that they had not yet chosen to use. He described Abbas’s move as “muscle-flexing” in response to Israel’s failure to release the fourth and final group of Palestinian terror convicts who had been set to go free last weekend. Israeli officials had balked at a PA demand for several Israeli-Arabs to be included in that group, and also insisted that Abbas first commit to extending peace talks past April — a demand Abbas refused.

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