US envoy Martin Indyk was due to meet with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Friday evening in an effort to rescue negotiations with Israel as US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that his country would weigh its future involvement in the peace talks.
“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the US can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward,” Kerry said during a press conference in Morocco.
“We intend to evaluate. Both parties say they want to continue. Neither party has said that they’ve called it off. But we’re not going to sit there indefinitely. This is not an open-ended effort, never has been,” he said.
“The President said that from the beginning and I’ve said that many times, including in the last few days. So it’s reality check time,” Kerry said. He added that the Arab League would be meeting in the next few days to discuss the latest events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry spoke at the tail end of a tumultuous week in the peace process where the United States had hoped to broker a deal to continue the negotiations for another nine-months beyond their original end date of April 29.
The deal would have had Washington free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and Israel release a fourth and final batch of 26 Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Israel would also have freed another 400 Palestinian prisoners "without blood on their hands,” while the Palestinians would commit to refrain from applying to international organizations and Israel would also curb Jewish construction beyond the Green Line.
But the deal fell apart on Wednesday when the Palestinians announced plans to sign 15 international conventions and treaties. On Thursday, the Palestinians handed their applications to those treaties to UN, Swiss and Dutch representatives in Ramallah. Kerry then held telephone conversations on Thursday night with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
During that conversation, Abbas refused a request by Kerry to suspend the 15 applications. Abbas told Kerry he was committed to the peace talks but that he had no choice but to turn to the international community after Israel violated its agreement to release a final batch of 26 prisoners on March 29.
Israel in turn said it only canceled that release after the Palestinians spoke of the 15 applications. Until then, it said it had delayed the release until a larger package was worked out that would allow for the negotiations to continue.
A senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, told Reuters that Abbas had not intended to upset Kerry, but rather to shine a spotlight on Israel’s failure to release the prisoners.”
He added that he did not believe the US would continue its involvement in the process. "I think (Kerry) will return because we have not abandoned the process. We will continue these negotiations as we agreed, and I wish for once that America's patience runs out -- with Israel and not the Palestinians,” Shaath said.
Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Michael Herzog who has advised the Israeli negotiating team said that the Palestinian move with regard to the 15 applications “pushes us [Israel] into a deep crisis and this when we were at the height of efforts to extend the negotiations for an additional nine months.” Herzog is also an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) on his Facebook page called on Israel to seize this opportunity to annex Area C of the West Bank.
“Now that it is clear that Abu Mazen [Abbas] does not seek peace we have to ask ourselves, what do we do now. The truth is that there is no magic solution, we will have to learn to live with the conflict,” he said.
But some Israeli sources said they hoped the situation could still be salvaged. They explained how the process had unraveled from the end of July 2013. At that time, direct bilateral talks began between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators toward a comprehensive final-status agreement within nine months.
Direct talks, however, turned into proximity talks, with the US going between the parties with the more modest aim of creating a framework to guide future negotiations, the sources said.
“We did a lot of extensive work on that,” the sources said, adding that a document would soon be forthcoming.
“The Israeli side was prepared to provide a positive answer to the framework with some reservations,” the sources said.
But the Palestinians refused to accept the document, the sources said.
As the process spiraled downward, an effort was made simply to keep the negotiations alive for another nine months by creating a comprehensive package of incentives for both sides, the sources said. It was expected that the next nine months would be more productive because they would avoid mistakes made in the prior nine months, the sources said.
But as the discussion on this package continued, the list of Palestinian demands grew, the sources said.
“It became apparent that it [these demands] would be endless because every day we got an additional demand,” the sources said. These discussion were ongoing until the Palestinians on Wednesday announced their plan to join the 15 international treaties and covenants.
The sources acknowledged that the Palestinian and Israeli narrative about the events of this week differed. Israel balked on March 29th at releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel prior to 1993, as it had promised at the start of the negotiations. They wanted to wait until the future of the negotiations were assured. It would have been the last release out of four. Since August Israel has freed 78 Palestinian prisoners involved in terror attacks against Israeli citizens. It say itself as delaying and not canceling the final release.
The Palestinians saw the Israeli hesitation as a sign that Jerusalem had broken its promise and in return, they to, could renege on their pledge not to take additional steps strengthen their legal standing as a state. They then submitted 15 applications for international covenants and treaties.
A source said he believed that the Palestinians had pre-planned this step and used the delay as an excuse.
“I will not say that everything collapsed. Technically we have time until the end of April. We can use that time to discuss what can be done and Israel is prepared to go back and discuss the terms of conditions of extending negotiations,” a source said.