A roller-coaster diplomatic day that held the possibility of a “grand deal” that would include the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard ended abruptly Tuesday night. US Secretary of State John Kerry canceled his plans to return to the region on Wednesday for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We are no longer traveling tomorrow,” a senior State Department official said in Brussels. “We are in close touch with the team on the ground.”
The announcement came shortly after Abbas initiated a move to apply for membership in 15 international organizations.
Under the terms of the agreement last July that enabled the current round of negotiations – which is set to expire on April 29 – Israel was to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners in four phases, and the Palestinians were to refrain from unilateral moves in the international arena.
Palestinian officials said Tuesday’s move was a response to Israel’s failure to meet the March 29 deadline for the release of the final batch of prisoners.
This development threatened to scuttle a US-brokered deal that would see the US release Pollard, Israel free the last batch of prisoners – in addition to another 400 Palestinian prisoners – and curb settlement construction, and the Palestinians agree to extend diplomatic talks and not to seek redress in international organizations.
A senior PA official said that despite the decision, the Palestinians would not walk out of the peace talks with Israel.
“We are committed to pursuing the negotiations until the end of April,” the official told The Jerusalem Post. “We have no intention of obstructing American efforts to reach an agreement.”
Kerry and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had discussed the planned package deal overnight Monday, shortly after Kerry interrupted meetings in Europe to fly to Israel and try to salvage the negotiations.
Kerry said at a press conference in Brussels that there was “no agreement at this time,” and that “there are a lot of possibilities.”
Abbas’s move was announced following a meeting of PLO and Fatah officials in Ramallah to discuss the current crisis in the talks.
Abbas, who signed the applications for joining the 15 international organizations and treaties, said he did not seek a “clash” with the US administration.
The signing ceremony was broadcast live on Palestine TV.
“We want a good relation with the US administration, because it is helping us and making big efforts,” he said.
Abbas pointed out that the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners was supposed to have gone free on March 29.
“Since then, we have been promised that the prisoners, who are dear to our hearts and because of whom we refrained over the past nine months from going to the United Nations organizations, would be released,” he said. “Unfortunately each time we are told that the Israeli government would meet to approve their release, but nothing has happened.”
Abbas said that the PA leadership had made it clear that unless the prisoners were released, “we will start going to and joining 63 international organizations and treaties.”
He added that the 15 applications he had signed Tuesday night would be sent immediately to the international organizations and conventions.
The PLO and Fatah leaders voted unanimously in favor of the move.
Abbas said that Kerry had made “superb efforts” to boost the peace process.
“We met with him 39 times since the beginning of the negotiations [with Israel],” he said. “We are not acting against anyone. We are only trying to find another way. This is our right, and we agreed to delay it for nine months. We never agreed to cancel this right [to join international organizations].”
Abbas said that in light of Israeli procrastination, the Palestinians had no other choice but to go ahead with plans to join international organizations and conventions.
PA officials said that the documents Abbas had signed included a request to join the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu briefed cabinet ministers on the contours of the deal he had discussed with Kerry, and government officials said he would take it to the cabinet for approval if and when it was finalized.
He is expected to face strong opposition from Bayit Yehudi and some ministers from within his own Likud Beytenu faction, although the inclusion of Pollard in the deal could make it easier for him to sell it.
Government sources said that without Pollard, it would be nearly impossible for him to get the cabinet to approve the package.
However, the Pollard component was by no means a done deal.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that US President Barack Obama “has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard.”
“There are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena, and I’m not going to get ahead of discussions that are under way,” he said.
In addition, voices opposed to the move were being raised in Washington, with Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate expressing deep skepticism at the prospect of Pollard’s release.
“This was a major betrayal, and I’ve followed it over the years,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the intelligence committee, told The Daily Beast. “It’s one thing if there’s an agreement. It’s another thing totally if there isn’t.”
Her Republican counterpart, Senator Saxby Chambliss, said that the US should never release Pollard, who he said had done “a lot of harm to America.”
And Pollard himself on Tuesday waived a parole hearing. He is eligible for parole on November 21, 2015, 30 years to the day of his arrest outside the Israeli embassy in Washington.
He would have to seek parole to be eligible for it, but – along with his supporters – has consistently sought presidential clemency instead.
Details of the package emerged following the Kerry-Netanyahu meeting in Jerusalem Tuesday morning. Officials involved in the talks said that the emerging deal contains the following elements: • Pollard, who has been in prison since 1985, would be released before the first Passover Seder on Monday, April 14.
• The negotiations would continue into January 2015, during which time the Palestinians would commit themselves not to engage in diplomatic warfare against Israel by going to international organizations for recognition.
• Israel would release the fourth batch of 26 Palestinians who were convicted of terror acts before the 1993 Oslo Accords, as it committed to do last July. Some Israeli Arabs would be included in the release, although it is not yet certain how many. The Palestinians are demanding 14.
• Israel would release an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners during the continuing negotiation period. These prisoners would be picked by Israel, include many minors and women, and not include those with “blood on their hands.”
• Israel would “exercise restraint” in releasing government tenders for new homes in the West Bank, meaning that it would issue no new government tenders for housing in Judea and Samaria. This policy would not include Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line.
This policy would also exclude public building projects, such as roads.
Israel rejected a total settlement freeze, as well as demands that Israel release an additional 1,000 prisoners, not just 400, and impose a total freeze on construction beyond the Green Line. Netanyahu was also adamant in refusing the Palestinian demand for Israel to release high-profile convicted terrorists Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sadat.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report from Washington.