OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel and the Palestinians announced moves Tuesday that could scuttle peace talks, prompting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to call off a second visit in as many days aimed at saving them.
Earlier in the day, Kerry had wrapped up a lightning visit to Israel, planning to return to the region Wednesday in hopes of convincing the Palestinians to extend the faltering talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
But just hours after he left, news emerged that Israel had reissued tenders for hundreds of settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem, just as Washington was to push for a settlement freeze.
Shortly afterward, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced a request to join several U.N. agencies, abandoning pledges to refrain from doing so during the months of talks that Kerry kick-started in July.
“We are no longer traveling tomorrow,” a senior State Department official said shortly after Abbas’ announcement.
U.S. peace efforts were already teetering on the brink after Israel refused to free a fourth and final group of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners to complete an agreement that had brought the sides back to talks.
The negotiations have faltered over several issues, notably Israel’s settlement expansion, with the Palestinians demanding a freeze, including in East Jerusalem.
Tuesday’s 708 tenders in the East Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Gilo came on top of thousands of new homes announced over the course of the talks.
Israeli NGO Ir Amim described the tenders as “a poke in the eye of both the Palestinians and the Americans,” army radio said.
Hagit Ofran, from Israeli’s Peace Now NGO, accused the Housing Ministry of “trying to forcefully undermine the peace process ... and John Kerry’s efforts to promote it.”
Palestinian leaders had repeatedly threatened to resume their action through the U.N. and international courts over settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
They agreed to refrain from such action during the talks, and Israel in turn said it would release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners.
But Israel has refused to release the final batch of prisoners, using it as a bargaining chip to try to extend talks, a move that prompted furious Palestinian officials to warn they would break off negotiations.
The Palestinians gave Kerry a 24-hour deadline Monday to find a solution to the prisoner row, warning that failure to do so would see them turning to U.N. bodies to press their claims for statehood. But late Tuesday afternoon, Abbas announced a request to join “15 U.N. agencies and international treaties, beginning with the Fourth Geneva Convention. “The demands [for membership] will be sent immediately” to the relevant agencies,” he said. “This is not a move against America, or any other party – it is our right, and we agreed to suspend it for nine months.”
Kerry had met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for two hours late Monday before meeting Palestinian negotiators. The pair held a second meeting early Tuesday.
Sources had said Washington was also mulling a proposal to free Jonathan Pollard, serving life in prison for spying on America on Israel’s behalf. But the White House said before the Tuesday afternoon developments that President Barack Obama had not made any decision on Pollard.