OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered ministers to limit all but diplomatic and security contact with their Palestinian counterparts, an official said Wednesday, dealing another blow to faltering peace talks.
The move comes a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry, who kick-started talks in July, blamed Israel for derailing the process by announcing new settlement construction in what he described as a "poof" moment in negotiations.
"In response to the Palestinian violation of their commitments under peace talks... Israel government ministers have been told to refrain from meeting their Palestinian counterparts," the Israeli government official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Palestinian labour minister Ahmad Majdalani dismissed the significance of the move.
"In any case there are no (regular) meetings organised between Palestinian and Israeli ministers, apart from the finance ministers," he told AFP.
Israel's environment minister also brushed aside the move as "useless and premature," calling for a government meeting on the matter.
Kerry on Tuesday blamed Israel's approval of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem on April 1 for the latest crisis in the negotiations, a charge that has left Israeli officials bristling.
While he blamed intransigence on both sides, Kerry told US lawmakers that a delayed Israeli plan to release several Palestinian prisoners as part of a good faith effort was sabotaged by the settlements move.
"In the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment," he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At the end of March, Israel refused to release a final batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners as agreed under the talks, and at the same time reissued tenders for 708 settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians responded to the prisoner issue by applying for membership of 15 international treaties, despite their own commitment to refrain from such action during the nine months of talks.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have since teetered on the brink of collapse, with Washington fighting an uphill battle to get the two sides to agree to a framework proposal to extend the negotiations beyond an April 29 deadline to the year's end.
Kerry's remarks were met with a crisp response from Israel's Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party.
"Israel will never apologise for building in Jerusalem," Bennett said.
"For many years (the Palestinians) tried with explosions and bombs to stop us being in the eternal capital of the Jewish people. It will not happen."
The State Department, perhaps assessing the potential impact Kerry's comments could have in the Middle East, rushed to explain that the secretary of state was fair-minded in apportioning blame.
"John Kerry was again crystal clear today that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Twitter.
"He even singled out by name Prime Minister Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout (the) process."
Meanwhile, the two sides met US envoy Martin Indyk late Monday and were to see him again on Wednesday, a Palestinian source told AFP.
It was unclear if the latest Israeli decision would affect that meeting.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas met in Cairo with Arab foreign ministers, who had welcomed the Palestinian move to apply to the international treaties.
A Palestinian government source requesting anonymity told AFP that the Israelis might move to block tax revenue collected by Israel on the Palestinian Authority's behalf, given that meetings between the finance ministers dealt principally with this issue.
Israel briefly imposed the same crippling measure in December 2012 to punish the Palestinians' successful drive for observer state status at the United Nations, despite strong opposition from Israel and the United States.
Israel was reportedly mulling sanctions against the Palestinians last week in response to its international treaties move.