US Secretary of State John Kerry has called off a trip to the West Bank. The decision came immediately after announcements by both the Israelis and the Palestinians that cast fresh doubt on peace talks.
Kerry cancelled his Wednesday trip to the West Bank at short notice, after announcements from both sides that muddied the diplomatic waters.
"We are no longer travelling tomorrow," a senior State Department official said on Tuesday. Earlier, Israel had announced hundreds of new tenders for housing settlements on occupied territory. Soon after that, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would seek greater recognition for Palestine from the UN because Israel had reneged on a planned prisoner release.
The announcements place in jeopardy the negotiations that resumed in July last year. As a precondition for the talks, Abbas had said no application would be made for more UN recognition over a nine-month period. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have long said they view planned settlement construction in occupied areas as a sign of bad faith.
Kerry had been in Israel early on Tuesday, ahead of his brief planned visit to the NATO summit in Brussels. He was due to return to the Middle East to meet Abbas just a day later, before the latest snags arose.
Appeal for restraint
The Secretary of State said it was too early to draw conclusions about the prospects for future talks, claiming there were still "a lot of possibilities" in play.
"My team is on the ground meeting with the parties even now," Kerry said. "We urge both parties to show restraint. Even tonight, both parties say they want to continue to find a way forward," Kerry told reporters after meeting NATO counterparts in Brussels.
In its announcement, Israel said it would reissue 708 settlement tenders in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Washington, which has brokered the talks, had been pushing for the Israelis to accept Palestinian calls for a settlement freeze.
Soon after the Israeli statement, Abbas appeared in a televised ceremony. Before the cameras, Abbas signed "State of Palestine" applications for 15 UN agencies, and said he had been forced to take action because Israel had not carried out a promised release of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners.
The release of the fourth and final group of prisoners would have completed an agreement on behalf of the Israelis that was intended to bring both sides back to the talks. Palestinian officials had set a Tuesday ultimatum for the prisoners to be released.
rc/kms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)