Peace talks edge closer to abyss

Abbas at a PLO meeting on Monday (Photo: Getty Images)

Abbas at a PLO meeting on Monday (Photo: Getty Images)

The talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were on the brink of collapse this week.

By Wednesday, the Americans had suspended their role as go-betweens, Israel had refused to release the last tranche of prisoners and the PA had formally requested recognition as a member-state from international organisations.

Hours before the talks were suspended, the Israeli cabinet was informally discussing an American proposal that in return for continuing the talks, Israel would release 400 prisoners and informally freeze settlement building in the West Bank. As part of the deal, the Obama administration would release American Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard.

The crisis reached its peak on Tuesday when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that since Israel had refused to release the last group of 26 prisoners — out of the 104 it has agreed to set free — there was no reason to continue the negotiations and he was therefore signing applications to join 15 different international organisations and conventions.

The Israeli position remained that the fourth tranche of prisoners would only be released after the Palestinians committed to continuing the negotiations.

Following the Palestinian announcement, US Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled his plans to visit Ramallah on Wednesday to seek an agreement on a new round of talks.

Mr Kerry’s aides told the media that it was up to the two sides to make the necessary decisions to continue the talks.

However, senior Israeli sources confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed in principle to a US proposal to extend the talks beyond their nine-month deadline. According to this plan, Israel would release a further 400 prisoners and freeze settlement building.

In an attempt to quell opposition from the Israeli right, Mr Kerry also proposed the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel in 1987. Successive American administrations have refused Israeli requests to set free Mr Pollard, who suffers from ill health.

The decision by President Abbas to turn down the Kerry proposal and approach the international organisations is still being seen as a negotiating tactic that came in response to Israel’s refusal to release 14 Israeli-Arab prisoners and the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for his involvement in directing suicide bombings.

Palestinian sources have pointed out that Mr Abbas has so far not asked for recognition at the international court at The Hague, a move that Israel would consider a deal-breaker.

Neither side has had their last word. Israeli ministers were under orders not to make statements that could jeopardise the US efforts.

At the time of going to press, Mr Kerry was still in Europe, a few hours’ flight from Jerusalem and Ramallah, and a majority of the Israeli cabinet seemed in favour of accepting the US proposal. Even among the Palestinians, there were still voices supporting the talks.

Last updated: 9:11am, April 3 2014