JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel yesterday announced a partial freeze in high-level contacts with the Palestinians and also threatened economic steps after they signed international conventions, deepening a crisis menacing US-brokered peace talks.
Israeli government officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered cabinet members, directors-general of government ministries and other senior officials not to meet their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority (PA). A spokesman for the PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said Israeli-Palestinian ministerial meetings were rare but voiced concern about the possibility of Israeli economic sanctions.
The order does not apply to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief peace negotiator, or to defence and security officials, Israeli officials said. A US mediator has held a series of meetings over the past week to try to push the troubled talks past an original April 29 deadline for a deal. “This decision undermines all international efforts … to revive the negotiations, to proceed with a constructive solution to the challenges facing the peace process,” said Palestinian Authority spokesman Ehab Bseiso.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had issued the order in response to “the Palestinians’ grave violation of their commitments in the framework of the peace talks” – a reference to the signing of 15 international agreements last week. The ban was imposed just hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Israel’s announcement on April 1 of plans to build about 700 housing units in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want for the capital of a future state, was the immediate cause of talks plunging into crisis. Washington described the Israeli decision as “unfortunate.” Kerry, meeting in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieber-man, said: “We are working hard to try to find a way forward. And both parties indicate they would like to find a way to go forward in the talks.”