CAIRO: The Arab League called on the United States Wednesday to keep up efforts to salvage Middle East peace talks that are on the brink of collapse, blaming Israel for a crisis that has led Washington to evaluate its role in the negotiations.
At a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, the Arab League said Israel was responsible for the “serious predicament” facing the negotiations, citing its failure to release about two dozen Palestinian prisoners as one of the major causes.
“[The ministers] called on America to continue its efforts for the resumption of the negotiation track that obliges Israel to implement its commitments … according to the agreed time frame,” a League statement said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas echoed their statement, saying Israel was “wholly responsible for the dangerous stalemate.”
Arab League chief Nabil Elarabi accused the Israelis of dragging their feet in the talks, telling reporters: “Gaining time is a strategic objective for Israel.”
The U.S.-brokered negotiations plunged into crisis last week after Israel, demanding a Palestinian commitment to continue talking after the end of the month, failed to carry out the promised release of about two dozen Palestinian prisoners and approved Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.
Abbas responded by signing 15 global treaties, including the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war and occupations, on behalf of the State of Palestine, a defiant move that surprised Washington and angered Israel.
Kerry Tuesday said Israel’s approval of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem on April 1 ignited the latest crisis in the negotiations, a charge that left Israeli officials bristling.
While he blamed intransigence on both sides, Kerry told U.S. 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.
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 apologize 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.”
In retaliation for signing the international conventions, Israel announced Wednesday a partial freeze in high-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli government officials said had ordered Cabinet members, directors-general of government ministries and other senior officials not to meet their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority.
The order does not apply to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief peace negotiator, or to defense and security officials, they said.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had issued the order in response to “the Palestinians’ grave violation of their commitments in the framework of the peace talks” – a reference to the signing of the 15 international agreements last week.
“This decision undermines all international efforts … to revive the negotiations, to proceed with a constructive solution to the challenges facing the peace process,” said PA spokesman Ehab Bseiso.
The Palestinian Labor Minister played down the significance of the move, saying Israeli-Palestinian ministerial meetings were rare.
“In any case there are no [regular] meetings organized between Palestinian and Israeli ministers, apart from the finance ministers,” Ahmad Majdalani told AFP.
However, a Palestinian government source 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.
Though Israel did not mention such measures Wednesday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said the Israeli government had “indicated” this morning it would withhold the revenues. He did not say how that message had been delivered.
Israel briefly withheld the tax revenues in December 2012 to punish the Palestinians’ successful drive for observer state status at the United Nations.