By ISRAEL HAYOM—
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ordered Israeli government ministries to cut off high-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority on non-security related issues.
The Prime Minister’s Office said the move was a response to the recent Palestinian decision to submit applications to join 15 international organizations and conventions.
The order does not apply to the Defense Ministry or to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s meetings with Palestinian negotiators.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority have hurled accusations at one another in recent days over the crisis in the peace talks, but on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the circumstances leading to the impasse and hinted that it was Israel’s fault.
“Unfortunately, the prisoners weren’t released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released, and — and so day went by, Day Two went by, Day Three went by, and then 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,” Kerry said.
Kerry, testifying before Congress, also had criticism for the Palestinians, pointing to their move to join 15 international organizations and conventions.
“Both sides, whether advertently or inadvertently, wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Kerry said this would take time.
“The government of the United States and the president supports the notion of Israel being defined as a Jewish state,” he told the Senate panel. “We believe that that should happen. But when it happens, and how it happens, has to be part of the negotiations. It’s not going to happen in the beginning.”
In a confrontation with Republican Sen. John McCain, who called on Kerry to “recognize reality” that the talks had failed, Kerry responded by saying: “It’s interesting that you declare it dead, but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead. They want to continue to negotiate.”
Kerry, however, warned: “There are limits to the time the president and I … can commit to this, given the rest of the agenda, if they’re not prepared to commit to actually be there in a serious way. So, we’ll see what happens in the next days.”
But signaling he has not yet given up, Kerry said he hoped “the parties will find a way back. We’re working with them to try to do so, but they have to … make that fundamental decision, and I hope they will.”
Along those lines, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met again on Tuesday, but the session also ended with no sign of a breakthrough. An Israeli official, according to Reuters, said the sides had agreed to meet again.
In a statement about the latest discussions, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “Gaps remain, but both sides are committed to narrow the gaps.”
Psaki also said Kerry was not seeking to blame Israel for the impasse in the talks.
Kerry was scheduled to meet Wednesday in Washington with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, currently in the U.S. trying to salvage the negotiations. Despite the content of the meeting being held under wraps, it was clear to all sides, namely the Americans, that the meeting was crucial in determining their degree of involvement in the continuation of the diplomatic process.
Lieberman told Israel Radio on Tuesday that Abbas would have to withdraw the applications to international organizations and conventions in order for the prisoner release to be re-addressed. He also suggested the negotiating format may have to be altered to include direct meetings between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry’s comments before the Senate, meanwhile, infuriated Israeli officials. Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett issued a swift response to Kerry.
“Israel will never apologize for building in Jerusalem,” Bennett said.
“I heard that someone has decided building in Jerusalem is the reason for the breakdown in the talks with the Palestinians. For many years people have tried to prevent us from living in the eternal capital of the Jewish people. This won’t happen. Building in Jerusalem is not a ‘poof.’ Building in Jerusalem is Zionism.”
Lieberman, along with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, were also pessimistic on Tuesday about chances of keeping the talks alive, saying they believe that Abbas was uninterested in reaching a deal with Israel.
Speaking on Israel Radio, Lieberman said, “The truth must be told — the Palestinians in general and Abbas in particular are not interested in reaching an agreement. We saw this previously as well. You can also ask Tzipi Livni who was there at Annapolis and knows every detail of what happened. We cannot take the blame.”
The foreign minister added that while he favors negotiations, he will not be “a sucker.”
“We won’t agree to the Palestinians acting unilaterally without exacting a price from them,” he said.
Lieberman, who recently said new elections could be held and that there may soon be a Russian-speaking prime minister of Israel, addressed the matter on Tuesday by saying “we are not interested in new elections. The headlines in the press on this issue are a case of selective hearing by the media. Every party would rather deal with matters of state rather than party politics.”
Ya’alon said Tuesday during a visit to northern Israel to observe a Golani Brigade exercise that in recent months the PA has told Israel that it is not prepared to discuss recognition of a Jewish state or giving up the right of return.
“I’m not a prophet of doom, I’m a realist,” Ya’alon said.
“Unfortunately, on this issue, I find myself saying repeatedly, ‘I told you so.’ I wish the situation was different. Every time, the Palestinians run away and try to blame us. On Passover, we need to free ourselves from mental enslavement to irrelevant concepts on the Israeli-Palestinian matter.”
Steinitz said Israel must respond to the Palestinian unilateral bid for international recognition,and suggested a financial punishment.
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, speaking at a meeting of Habayit Hayehudi activists, said: “When there are ministers who take the time to say 1,000 times that we are guilty there are those across the ocean who listen.”
In response to Kerry’s comments, Ariel said, “There is no division among the cabinet ministers that the Palestinians are responsible for the talks breaking down.”
Meanwhile, London-based Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported Tuesday that the Palestinians had rejected an Israeli proposal to have Netanyahu meet Abbas directly within a framework of understandings that would facilitate the fourth stage of the prisoner release.
Abbas, for his part, arrived in Cairo on Tuesday and met with senior officials from Arab countries at an emergency Arab League summit to address the apparent collapse of the negotiations.
PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said Abbas on Wednesday would appeal to the Arab League for political and economic support in the event of punitive measures being taken against the Palestinians.
Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour said on Tuesday that the Palestinians were prepared to join more international groups if Israel retaliated.
“If they want to escalate further and try to illegally punish us for doing something legal, we are ready and willing to send the second barrage, the third barrage and more of what legally we could do,” Mansour told the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.