Netanyahu orders ministers to cut contact with Palestinians

In a move that seemed to set back US-brokered Middle East peace talks further, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his cabinet ministers and their ministry directors to cut off contact with their Palestinian counterparts. Some lower level contact will continue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his ministers Wednesday to cut off contact with their Palestinian counterparts, an official said, the latest in a series of troubles plaguing floundering U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The move is retaliation for a Palestinian bid to join United Nations agencies, which the official said was a violation of the Palestinians' commitment in the peace talks. The Palestinians dismissed the Israeli move, saying both sides rarely meet now as it is.

The latest Israeli-Palestinian spat came as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought and secured a renewal of political and financial support from his Arab brethren at a meeting Wednesday in Cairo. Arab foreign ministers renewed their commitment to give $100 million in monthly aid to Abbas' government and blamed Israel for the talks' troubles.

"Israel is one country which does not abide by the rules of international law," Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told journalists. "They consider themselves above the law."

Under the peace talks' terms, Israel promised to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four groups. At the same time, the Palestinians said they would suspend a campaign to sign up Palestine, recognized by the U.N. General Assembly as a non-member observer state, for as many as 63 U.N. agencies, treaties and conventions.

Abbas signed letters of accession for 15 international conventions after Israel last week failed to release the fourth group of prisoners and renewed a push to build homes in an Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem — the area of the holy city sought by the Palestinians for their future capital. Israel then called off the final prisoner release.

Under Netanyahu's order Wednesday, Israeli Cabinet ministers and their ministry directors can no longer meet Palestinian counterparts, though lower-level contacts will continue, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The official said Israel'schief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, would be exempt from Netanyahu's order, suggesting the actual impact of the directive on the talks would be minimal.

High-level contacts between top Israeli and Palestinian officials are already rare, Palestinian government spokesman Ihab Bsaiso said.

"This won't affect our daily life or government business," Bsaiso said.

Bsaiso did express concern that Israeli tax transfers to the Palestinians could be disrupted. Under interim peace accords, Israel collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinians and then transfers the funds each month. The exact sum of the money, roughly $100 million, is set in talks between senior finance officials.

Without this money, the Palestinian Authority would have a difficult time paying the salaries of its tens of thousands of employees. Israel's Finance Ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Netanyahu's order is the latest step by Israel to sanction the Palestinians for their U.N. bid. Israel also has prevented Palestinian mobile phone company Wataniya from transferring equipment to Gaza.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Netanyahu's order "unfortunate."

"We note that the contact and meetings between the negotiators are continuing and note that they are engaging in serious and intensive efforts to find a way out of the current impasse," Psaki said.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki, speaking in Cairo, said Abbas' government remained committed to continuing the talks until the April 29 deadline previously announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

"There are attempts to extend the deadline, but that is a different matter that we can later talk about," said Malki.

An Arab League statement called for support to Palestinian accession to international treaties and expressed its "absolute rejection" of Israeli demands.

The U.S. has been trying to salvage the talks, brokering a series of meetings between the two sides. Kerry, who has been leading the effort, appeared to single out Israel for the faltering talks Tuesday, saying Israel refused to release prisoners as promised and advanced plans to build new settlements.

"And, poof, that was sort of the moment," Kerry said. "We find ourselves where we are."

Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi in Cairo and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.

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