The US continued intensive efforts Wednesday to salvage Israeli-Palestinian talks, as US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk hastily convened a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators that indicated, according to one diplomatic source, that “the ball is still in play.”
Indyk met with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem some 24 hours after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded to Israel’s refusal to release a final batch of 26 Palestinian terrorists by seeking admission in some 15 UN and international organizations, conventions and treaties.
Abbas’s move took Israel and the US by surprise, as it came in the midst of efforts to put together a “grand package” that would include the US releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Israel freeing the last batch of 26 prisoners and an additional 400 prisoners “without blood on their hands,” as well as pledging to restrain Jewish construction in the West Bank, and the Palestinians agreeing to continue talks into 2015 and refrain from seeking membership in international forums.
Tellingly, and in an indication that he was uninterested in “pouring oil on the flames,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made no comments Wednesday on the Palestinian move – neither condemning it nor indicating what counter moves Israel might take – in an apparent attempt to give US Secretary of State John Kerry the space to continue to try to put a package deal together.
Kerry spoke with both Netanyahu and Abbas on the phone Wednesday in a tense effort to maintain the talks.
Late Tuesday, after the Palestinian move, he canceled a planned return to the region and meeting with Abbas.
“There is a chance to move this process forward. There is still a chance for this,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. But, she added, reflecting a sentiment expressed by Kerry the day before after he canceled his trip to the region, “we can’t make the hard choices for them [the Israelis and Palestinians].”
Harf said the US would not “play the blame game” and discuss who began a downward spiral over the course of 24 hours when the contours of the package deal began to emerge, only to quickly be erased.
Just before the meeting with Erekat, Livni – Israel’s chief negotiator and arguably the strongest proponent for the talks in the government – criticized the Palestinians for their move.
“The Palestinian move to turn to the UN harms Palestinian interests,” she said at an event in Tel Aviv. “If they want a state, they need to know that this will come only through negotiations.”
Her critical words, however, were not aimed only at the Palestinians. She said that while the Palestinian move was not encouraging, “it is forbidden to give up.”
She described the negotiations as “complex, hard and complicated,” both with the Palestinians and “in a coalition that is not easy “and includes “extremists who want to prevent peace.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin slammed Livni for meeting with Erekat, saying that doing so after the Palestinian move to the international organizations, in contravention to their previous commitments, was “a disgrace for Israel.”
“The time has come to stop being the Middle East’s permanent sucker,” he said.
“I call on the prime minister and Livni to end the negotiating process until Abu Mazen [Abbas] takes back these applications to the UN.”
Elkin further said that Israel should unilaterally use the leverage at its disposal – but which he did not specify – to show the Palestinian leadership it was not worthwhile doing battle with Israel in the international arena.
However, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, speaking at a pre-Passover party event in Jerusalem, was more moderate in his position, saying only that Israel had done everything it could to reach an agreement, and that now the “ball was in their [the Palestinians’] court.”
He said that Israel, and not only the Palestinians, had other diplomatic “horizons,” which included strengthening cooperation with the moderate Arab states, among them the Persian Gulf emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Liberman said Israel must make “supreme efforts” to have quiet channels with that part of the Arab world that understands that extremism is its primary enemy. “If the Palestinians want, they can join. If not, they don’t have to,” he said.
In his first public statement about the release of Palestinian prisoners, Liberman said he would oppose any arrangement that included Israeli Arabs. The Palestinians are demanding that Israelis be included in the final prisoner release.
Liberman stressed the close Israeli-US ties and underlined Kerry’s friendship.
In Washington, meanwhile, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, testifying to the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on the administration’s 2015 budget request for the United Nations and international organizations, said the US will “stand with Israel, we will defend it and we will challenge every instance of unfair treatment [of Israel] throughout the UN system.”
Power was unequivocal in her opposition to the Palestinian move seeking inclusion in a number of UN bodies and treaties. “There are no short cuts to statehood,” she said. “We have made that clear.”
Attempts “to circumvent the peace process, the hard slog of the peace process, are only going to be counterproductive to the process itself and to the ultimate objective of securing statehood,” she said.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who chairs the subcommittee, said the Obama administration must make its opposition clear. “The administration must send a clear message to the Palestinians that the only path to statehood is through a negotiated agreement with Israel, not through unilateral attempts at the UN,” she said.
Rep Nita Lowey of New York, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, said she found Abbas’s move “extremely disappointing.”
The PA, meanwhile, formally submitted its applications to join the international organizations and treaties on Wednesday to the representatives of the UN, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
The PA Foreign Ministry said the decision was taken in response to Israel’s refusal to release the fourth and final group of Palestinian prisoners at the end of March.
Among the treaties and conventions the PA applied for are the Fourth Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949; the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Holding the Israeli government responsible for the crisis in the peace talks, the PA ministry said Palestinian membership in international bodies and treaties was a Palestinian right and reflected the will of the international community.
PLO secretary-general Yasser Abed Rabbo said that the decision to join the 15 international organizations and treaties was a first step toward joining all United Nations agencies.
Abed Rabbo told reporters in Ramallah that the PA leadership would not make concessions on Palestinians’ political and national rights.
“Israeli blackmail won’t make us backtrack,” he said.
The PA leadership, he added, won’t return to the peace talks just for the sake of negotiating. The Palestinians are interested in pursuing the peace process and honoring all agreements, he said.