JERUSALEM — President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority signed papers today to join 15 international agencies, threatening a breakdown in the fraught Mideast peace talks. A meeting between Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had planned to fly here Wednesday to finalize a deal extending the negotiations into 2015, was canceled.
Abbas, who has been under pressure from other Palestinian leaders and the public to press his case for statehood through U.N. agencies, said today that he was taking that course because Israel had failed to release a fourth batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March, as promised when the talks started last summer.
“We do not want to use this right against anybody or confront anybody,” Abbas said as he signed the papers, in a speech broadcast live on Palestinian television. “We don’t want to collide with the U.S. administration. We want a good relationship with Washington because it helped us and exerted huge efforts. But because we did not find ways for solution, this becomes our right.”
Israel and the United States both vigorously oppose Palestinian membership in these international agencies. Congress passed a law saying such membership could trigger a withdrawal of U.S. financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and other steps.
Kerry, who had flown to Brussels for a NATO meeting today and was planning to return to see Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, was no longer making the trip, a senior State Department official said. It was unclear what the cancellation might mean for the peace talks.
“We are no longer traveling tomorrow,” the official said.
A senior Palestinian official said the 15 agencies Abbas moved to join — out of more than 60 possible — did not include the International Criminal Court or International Court of Justice, where many Palestinians hope to prosecute Israelis for what they consider war crimes, including the demolition of homes, arrests and killings of Palestinians, and building of settlements. The 15 did include the Geneva and Vienna conventions, and agencies dealing with women’s and children’s rights, the official said.
Officials involved in the negotiations said that the deal under discussion would involve the release of Jonathan J. Pollard, an American serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, along with the promised fourth batch of long-serving prisoners — including Arab-Israeli citizens — and 400 other Palestinian prisoners. It also included a partial freeze on Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, in exchange for the Palestinians’ continued commitment to refrain from joining international agencies.
Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel negotiated details of the emerging deal in meetings here that began Monday night and continued today. But the agreement was awaiting approval from the White House regarding Pollard as well as from Abbas, and Abbas’ action today may well make it irrelevant.
Israel refused to release the fourth batch of prisoners unless Abbas agreed to extend negotiations, arguing that its original commitment was not binding because no meaningful talks had taken place since November. Israel’s turnabout today, eased by the promise of Pollard’s release, may have come too late.
“Today is the last chance that Israel has to release these prisoners,” Jameel Shehada, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, had said in a radio interview in the morning. “Yesterday, the leadership had taken a clear stance to go to international agencies because it is very clear that the Israelis are not interested in abiding by their part of the deal and releasing the prisoners.”
Abbas said today that the Palestinians “will continue our efforts to reach a peaceful solution through negotiations.” But he also said that if Israel did not release the promised prisoners, he would join the rest of the 63 international agencies for which Palestine became eligible after the U.N. General Assembly granted it nonmember observer-state status in 2012. This “is a right for us that we found,” he said. “We are determined to reach a settlement through negotiations and through peaceful, popular resistance. We reject anything else.”
Earlier, a senior official involved in the negotiations had said the terms of the developing agreement would be for Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst convicted of espionage more than a quarter century ago, to be released before Passover, which begins the evening of April 14. Israel would free a fourth batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners as promised at the start of the talks, as well as 400 other prisoners, many of them women and children, who were not convicted of murder.
Among the prisoners would be 14 Arab-Israelis, whose release is deeply controversial in Israel because it raises questions about sovereignty, and could cause a crisis in its governing coalition, with some ministers threatening to quit if they are freed.
Israel would also agree to show “restraint” in building in its West Bank settlements, which most of the world views as illegal. The partial freeze would apply to the issuing of government tenders for housing; projects underway would be allowed to continue, and institutional projects like schools could still move forward. East Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider the capital of their future state, would not be included in the freeze.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, did not return messages seeking comment today. Shehada had said in the morning radio interview that “on principle, the leadership rejects the idea of extending the talks, basically because no progress has been made.”
“However, if the U.S. promises and the Israelis reassure that the negotiations need a limited amount of time to achieve progress, then the leadership may be more lenient,” he said. “But there must be a complete halt to the settlements, and more prisoners must be released.”
Within Israel, heated debate began Tuesday over details of the possible deal. Pollard’s cause has been embraced by the same right-wing politicians who oppose the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners, any slowdown in settlement construction and in some cases the peace talks themselves.
While Netanyahu could win significant political cover with a preholiday homecoming for Pollard, who was granted Israeli citizenship while in prison, his coalition is deeply divided over the Palestinian question. Several ministers have vowed to vote against any release of imprisoned Israeli citizens. The question is whether they would quit — and possibly force new elections — if a majority of the Cabinet approves the deal.
Yair Shamir, the minister of agriculture, said, “A lot of things are being mixed up that don’t go together.”
“We must insist on our principles, on our land, on not releasing terrorists — certainly not Israeli-Arab citizens. If this comes up for a vote, I will definitely vote against,” Shamir, a member of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction, said on Israel Radio. “My heart is with Pollard if he is not released. Of course he should be released, but for other reasons, and not as a bribe.”
Michael B. Oren, who recently finished a tour as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Pollard should be released “without any connection to diplomatic or any other moves” but that Israel also had to ensure “the talks will not collapse and, if they do, we are not responsible for the collapse.”
“We have to ask ourselves, have the Palestinians become addicted to Israeli incentives?” Oren said in a radio interview.