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Middle East

Middle East peace talks in crisis

Israel has failed to release the last group of Palestinian prisoners, and Palestinian President Abbas signed applications to join 15 United Nations conventions. It's unclear how the Middle East peace talks can continue.

As the TV cameras rolled, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sat down and signed applications to join several United Nations international conventions. The move put the latest round of Middle East peace talks into an even deeper crisis. On March 29, Israel let the deadline pass for the release of a final group of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners.

The Palestinian leadership responded Thursday (03.04.2014) by warning of consequences, because the release of the a total of 104 prisoners had been agreed as a "trust-building measure." In return the Palestinians said they would take no unilateral steps at UN organizations. Abbas declared that since the deadline had now passed, the Palestinian Territories no longer felt bound to that agreement.

Hectic diplomacy

Only a day before, US Secretary of State John Kerry had interrupted his trip to Europe and rushed to Jerusalem to mediate personally in the crisis. According to Israeli media, a compromise could have been reached - only the Palestinians' patience apparently ran out on Tuesday evening (01.04.2014). That was when it emerged that the Israeli Construction Ministry had approved 708 new apartments in Gilo, an Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem.

Kerry and Netanyahu
Photo: REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

Kerry rushed to Jerusalem to try and salvage the talks

By then, Kerry was already on his way back to a NATO meeting in Brussels to discuss major crises elsewhere in the world. Despite actions taken by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, he warned against declaring the Middle East peace talks for dead.

"It is completely premature tonight to draw... any final judgment about today's events and where things are," he said on Tuesday night. But a planned meeting between Kerry and Abbas the next day in Ramallah had already been cancelled.

The applications had been handed over to the organizations in question, the Palestinian government declared, before adding that Abbas had not closed the door to peace talks. He said he was ready to negotiate up until the last day of the agreed nine-month peace talk deadline - April 29. That leaves the two sides less than a month to find a way out of the crisis.

Conventions for a new state

Abbas emphasized that Palestinians were entitled to seek accession to the international conventions, which, as former Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib, pointed out, had been an important point for the Palestinian people. He added that the Palestinian public had not been particularly impressed with the talks so far, and there is a general belief that "neither the Israeli population nor the Israeli government is prepared to give up the settlements."

The Palestinian leadership, itself under massive pressure, also has to maintain its credibility. The newly signed conventions are important for the creation of a new state, not just for relations with the Israelis. The four Geneva conventions, in particular, are relevant here, because they deal with the protection of a civilian population under foreign occupation. They also deal with the protocols on torture, women's and children's rights, as well as the Vienna agreements on consular and diplomatic relations.

"We have waited a long time for the government to finally sign these conventions," said Shawan Jabarin of the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq. "Because these conventions not only create rights, but also duties to the people."

Palestinians wave their national flag as they await the release of Palestinian prisoners to Jerusalem December 31, 2013.
Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

The release of the prisoners had been a 'trust-building measure'

'Negative dynamic'

Since Abbas has not applied for membership to the International Criminal Court, "he has given Kerry the opportunity to find a way out of the crisis," said Shlomo Brom, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. "But the window is getting smaller and smaller - and the negative dynamic is almost impossible to stop now."

Israel could, Brom pointed out, retaliate with well-known punishments, should Abbas not capitulate - for instance by withholding the Palestinian Authority's tax income, or by restricting the freedom of movement of West Bank politicians.

But the Israeli news site Ynet reported that Israel's chief negotiator Tzipi Livni told her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat that the release of the 26 prisoners had been delayed for the foreseeable future. Over the weekend, Israel said it would not release them unless Palestinians politicians agreed to extend peace talks beyond the end of April.

All sides remain skeptical, mainly because the current focus is simply on keeping the talks alive. "If the negotiations are to continue, there has to be substance too," said Saman Khoury of the Palestinian Peace Coalition. "They can't just go on for the sake of the talks. Because everyone must see - soon there will be no room left for a two-state solution."

And it will depend on how much Kerry still believes in his mission. "Ultimately it is up to the parties to take the necessary steps if they really want to go forward," he warned on Thursday. "We can't make the decisions for them."

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