Does Palestinian leader's surprise move signal end of Mideast peace talks?

Palestinian President Abbas signed on to 15 international agencies, saying Israel had failed to uphold its part of a deal. But John Kerry said it was premature to declare the peace talks over.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talks during a leadership meeting in Ramallah, Tuesday, April 1. In a dramatic move that could derail eight months of US peace efforts, President Abbas resumed a Palestinian bid for further UN recognition despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel. Abbas signed 'State of Palestine' applications for 15 UN agencies in a hastily convened ceremony after Israel called off a promised prisoner release.

The few weak strings holding together US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks frayed further Tuesday as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a surprise decision to boost the Palestinians’ stature outside of the peace process by signing on to 15 international agencies.

The move prompted the cancellation of Secretary of State John Kerry’s planned return to the region for talks with Mr. Abbas in Ramallah Wednesday – talks intended to reach a complicated deal for giving the soon-to-expire negotiations new life.

Speaking at the close of a NATO ministers meeting in Brussels Tuesday, Secretary Kerry said it was “completely premature tonight to draw any kind of … final judgment about today’s events and where things are.”

But it was clear that a plan in the works involving multiple parts – Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners and at least a slowing of settlement construction, the Palestinians’ agreement to stick with peace talks into 2015, and even perhaps the release by the US of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard – was off, at least for now.

What Abbas’s action demonstrated was how fragile the talks are and how little real progress they have made since Kerry launched the process last summer. As he signed documents establishing Palestinian membership in 15 international agencies and conventions, including in areas such as women’s rights and children’s issues, Abbas said it was Israel’s failure to uphold its part of a deal setting up the talks that prompted his unilateral move.  

At the outset of negotiations nearly nine months ago, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four groups over the life of the talks. In return, the Palestinian Authority agreed to refrain from acting unilaterally to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state, for example by adhering to United Nations’ institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Israel had proceeded with the first three releases but then balked at the fourth and final release, which was to have taken place Saturday. Abbas, under intense pressure from other Palestinian leaders and the public to stand up to Israel, said Israel’s failure to uphold its commitment released him from his.

Invoking the “rights” the Palestinians received when Palestine won “non-member observer status” in the United Nations in 2012, Abbas said, “We do not want to use this right against anybody or confront anybody,” be he added that “because we do not find ways for [a] solution, this becomes our right.”

Abbas left the door open to keeping the peace talks going after the end of April, when they are to expire. But he warned that Israel’s continued refusal to hold up its part of the original bargain could prompt him to proceed to sign on to the other 63 international agencies the Palestinians are eligible to join as a result of their UN status.

That threat is potentially more worrisome for Israel, since it could include Palestine’s membership in the ICC. There the Palestinians could seek to press cases against Israel, which international law says is occupying Palestinian territory, on everything from war crimes to human rights abuses.

The Palestinians “will continue our efforts to reach a peaceful solution through negotiations,” Abbas said – as long as Israel makes good on its commitment and releases the last group of prisoners.

Before departing Brussels for Washington, Kerry cautioned his audience of reporters not to assume that talks already seen to be on their last legs had just collapsed.

“President Abbas has given his word to me that he will keep his agreement and that he intends to negotiate through the end of the month of April,” Kerry said, emphasizing that “none” of the international agencies Abbas signed on to Tuesday “involve the UN.”

At the same time, Kerry appeared to hint that, just as some Israeli and Palestinian decisions concerning the talks’ future remained up in the air, so do some US decisions – in particular the one that would make the release of Mr. Pollard, a former navy intelligence analyst serving a life sentence since 1987 for spying on the US, part of a three-way deal.

“At this point in time, no agreement has been reached with respect to any prisoner,” Kerry said, noting that he had been in contact with the White House during the day. Any release of Pollard, a Jewish American granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, would be decided by President Obama.

Many veterans of Middle East diplomacy were predicting even before the most recent setbacks that the initiative launched by Kerry last summer would fail. But Kerry insisted that both the Israelis and Palestinians had assured him Tuesday that “they want to continue to find a way forward,” and so he said the US would “continue to do our work.”

Skeptics would say that neither the Israelis nor Palestinians are ready to move forward, but that it boils down to neither of the two sides wanting to be held responsible by the US for the talks’ collapse. Still, Kerry insisted it was worth trying to resolve the standoff and pursue negotiations “because this matters – matters to the region, matters to the parties, matter to us, matters to the world.”

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