Israel blames Kerry as peace talks hopes fade

US mediator Martin Indyk leaves the region for Passover break; Jerusalem counters US secretary’s account of reasons for crisis

Secretary of State John Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk.  (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Secretary of State John Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

The likelihood that derailed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will get back on track before expiring at the end of April is virtually zero, senior Israeli officials were quoted saying Friday evening. And a TV news report quoted a senior Israeli official blaming Secretary of State John Kerry for the crisis.

“There is no chance of the negotiations restarting in the coming weeks,” unnamed officials were quoted by Channel 10 saying. They pointed to Special Envoy Martin Indyk’s return home to the US from the region ahead of the Passover holiday, and Jerusalem’s levying of economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, as indicating there was almost no prospect of the current impasse being broken and for talks to be extended past the current April 29 deadline.

According to Channel 2, the American-mediated negotiations-about-negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will only restart after Passover, the week-long festival that begins on Monday night. And for the time being there is no agreement over the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails or the freeing of American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from federal prison — elements of a deal that Kerry has been trying to broker to persuade the sides to continue their talks in the coming months.

Earlier this week, Kerry appeared to focus primary blame for the collapse of the talks on Israel, for having failed to release a scheduled fourth and final group of security prisoners at the end of March, and then for announcing new building plans in East Jerusalem. “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 units were approved in Jerusalem and then poof — that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said.

But an unnamed senior Israeli official, quoted by Channel 2 on Friday night, asserted that it was Kerry who was to blame for the breakdown. “He’s responsible for the crisis,” the official reportedly said. This was because Kerry inaccurately told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would be willing to release Israeli Arabs in the fourth group of prisoners, when Israel had not agreed to do so. There was also a difference between the sides about how many prisoners would go free. The secretary had months to try to resolve the discrepancies but failed to do so, the report said.

Eventually, Kerry acknowledged to Israel that he’d “made a mistake here” on the issue of Israeli-Arab terror convicts, the TV report said, and discussion began on a complex deal under which the US would free Pollard, Israel would release the Israeli Arab and other prisoners in the final group, as well as hundreds more prisoners, and would also partially freeze settlement construction, and the Palestinians would halt all unilateral moves toward statehood and agree to continue the talks. But that deal was derailed when Abbas applied to join 15 UN and other international treaties last week, and days of frenzied contacts this week have failed to achieve a new agreement.

Earlier Friday, several hundred people, including Arab members of Knesset, protested outside Gilboa Prison in northern Israel and called for the release of Arab-Israeli terrorists who were meant to be freed in the fourth wave of Palestinian prisoners.

The demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and the photos of imprisoned Israelis, and called on Abbas not to abandon the negotiations, particularly the issue of prisoner releases, Channel 2 reported.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat dismissed reports Thursday night that Israel and the PA were on the verge of a breakthrough that would allow talks to continue beyond their upcoming April 29 deadline.

“Reports of progress are false,” Erekat said in an interview with the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam. “The gaps remain very wide.”

Channel 2 had reported Thursday, based on a source in Washington, that Israel and the Palestinians were close to finalizing a deal that would see peace talks extended by nine months.

But a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel Thursday evening that reports on progress in the stalled talks were unfounded.

“The reports are unknown to us. As far as we know, we haven’t overcome the crisis,” the official said. However, talks between Israeli, American and Palestinian officials took place and will continue, the official added.

Erekat met with his Israeli counterpart, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Indyk late Thursday afternoon to negotiate the terms for extending talks. Also present were Benjamin Netanyahu confidant Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Farah, a Palestinian source close to the talks told AFP.

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