OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel Thursday abruptly called off a release of Palestinian prisoners, sending U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s troubled Mideast peace efforts further into a tailspin.
The Israeli announcement, made in reaction to a renewed Palestinian push for membership in United Nations agencies, deepened the crisis in U.S.-led peace talks and made Kerry’s goal of extending negotiations past a late-April dateline a more distant possibility.
Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said the Palestinians’ decision to seek accession to 15 international conventions through the U.N. violated the terms of the promised prisoner release, which would have been the fourth since talks resumed last summer. The Palestinians submitted their applications after Israel failed to carry out the release, as promised, by the end of March. Israel carried out the first three prisoner releases, but balked at the final one without assurances that the Palestinians would extend negotiations.
“New conditions were established and Israel cannot release the fourth batch of prisoners,” Livni said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Israeli move “creates problems” but that U.S.-mediated efforts to bring the sides together were continuing. “Neither side has indicated that they want to walk away from the talks.”
“Despite the fact that there has been some progress, there is still a gap, and the Israelis and Palestinians must decide whether they will take the necessary steps to close that gap,” he added. “The United States cannot impose an agreement on either side.”
Earlier Thursday, a frustrated Kerry exhorted leaders on both sides to “lead” and to do so now to prevent the negotiations from collapsing.
Kerry called it a “critical moment” for the peace process and vowed to continue his efforts “no matter what.” But he added there are limits to what the Obama administration can do to push the parties together.
“You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises,” he said, speaking in Algeria, where he was participating in strategic security talks. “The leaders have to lead and they have to be able to see a moment when it’s there.”
Under heavy pressure from Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks last July, agreeing to a nine-month negotiating period with the aim of reaching a final peace deal. With little to show for his efforts, Kerry is now trying to broker a more modest “framework” agreement, in hopes of extending talks past the April 29 deadline through the end of the year to complete a deal. Under the original negotiating formula, Israel promised to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four groups, while the Palestinians put on hold their campaign for joining U.N. agencies.
The Palestinians say the final release was already promised and should not be connected to any other issue.
U.S. officials have also said that Israel was expected to carry out the release.