OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel and the Palestinians appeared determined Monday to seal their divorce as Washington's nine-month deadline for reaching a Mideast peace deal was to expire, leaving peace hopes in tatters.
After more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry with the initial aim of brokering a deal by April 29, Washington's patience appeared to be growing dangerously thin as both sides moved to distance themselves from the crisis-hit talks.
Speaking to a closed meeting of senior international diplomats and officials, Kerry reportedly said that if Israel didn't seize the opportunity to make peace soon, it risked becoming an "apartheid state," a US news website reported Sunday.
"A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative," he said, according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by The Daily Beast website.
"Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens -- or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state," he said.
Apartheid is the term for the system of racial segregation put in place by the white supremacist regime in South Africa from 1948 until the country's first all-race elections in 1994.
Although the process was at a point of "confrontation and hiatus," Kerry insisted it was not dead -- yet.
But both the Palestinians and the Israelis appear to have drawn their own conclusions about the life expectancy of the US-led negotiations, which have made no visible progress since they began on July 29, 2013.
Last week, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip announced a surprise unity deal aimed at ending years of bitter political rivalry.
Israel denounced the deal as a deathblow to peace hopes and said it would "not negotiate" with any government backed by the Islamist movement. Washington also denounced the deal as "unhelpful".
Under the deal, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Hamas will work to establish a new unity government of political independents which would be headed by president Mahmoud Abbas.
It would recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by existing agreements, in line with the key principles set out by the Mideast peacemaking Quartet, Abbas said.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday there would be no negotiations with the new government unless Hamas accepted Israel, otherwise Abbas would be forced to chose between the two.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat accused Israel of using reconciliation as a weapon.
"During the negotiations, reconciliation was a sword used by Israel every day -- they were asking: what would you do with Gaza?" he told Voice of Palestine radio on Monday.
When the unity deal was struck, Israel changed its tune "saying it can't continue with peace efforts due to the reconciliation".
"So if peace cannot be achieved without Gaza, and it cannot be achieved with Gaza, then there is an Israeli aim here, and that is not achieving peace... They want to kill the two-state solution."
In a related development, the PLO on Sunday issued a statement blaming Israel for the collapse of the talks and confirming it would pursue efforts to sign up to another 60 UN bodies and international agreements.
There was no immediate Israeli response.
US President Barack Obama last week conceded it may be time for a "pause" in the process, giving both sides time to take a hard look at the alternatives to a negotiated solution in a move hailed by an Israeli MP close to Netanyahu.
"We must wait to understand the meaning of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement," Tzahi HaNegbi told army radio on Monday.
" Israel must act intelligently and with restraint, and not to play into the Palestinians' hands by helping them out of the trap into which they have fallen," he added.
Israel and Washington are reportedly at odds over the proposed new Palestinian government, with US officials waiting to see whether it will embrace the Quartet's principles.