As Israelis and Palestinians were virtually declaring diplomatic and economic war on each other after a Palestinian breach of their commitment to refrain from seeking unilateral recognition, the two sides nevertheless agreed to meet again to try to salvage the foundering peace talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that “they (Palestinians) will achieve a state only through direct negotiations and not through empty proclamations or unilateral moves, which will only push a peace accord farther away.”
“[The Palestinians] committed a violation of the understandings that were reached,” Netanyahu said. “Unilateral steps by them will be met with unilateral steps by us,” he added, though he did not specify what those steps would be.
Israel was willing to press on with the U.S.-brokered peace talks but not “at any price,” Netanyahu told the weekly meeting of his cabinet.
At the end of last week, the Palestinians presented a fresh list of demands for Israeli concessions, among other things upping the number of prisoners they want released to 1,200, including convicted murderers, and insisting on control of territory currently under Israel control. Initially, the figure under discussion was 400.
Israel made no direct response, but has cancelled the scheduled fourth release of Palestinian prisoners and threatened economic sanctions.
For the first time there was a threat from the Israelis side to take Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes. Until now, Abbas has been the one making such threats against Israel.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told Army Radio on Sunday that “we are currently preparing an indictment for war crimes against [Abbas] based on two rationales. The first is the daily cash transfers to Hamas, which is firing missiles on Israeli citizens, and the second is the direct financing of murderous terrorists themselves.”
However, in order for Israel to take such action, it would first have to formally join the ICC.
Reportedly stung by the latest setback, just as a complex deal for the negotiations’ extension was emerging, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was evaluating whether to continue its role in the talks.
Kerry declared on Friday that “it’s reality check time,” to see whether an agreement can be reached in the near term between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The U.S. will re-evaluate its role as mediator, he said.
“There are limits to the amount of time and effort the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward.”
The nine months of talks are scheduled to end April 29, and Kerry has been pressing to have them continue through much of the rest of the year. “But we’re not going to sit here indefinitely,” he said. “So it’s reality check time, and we intend to evaluate precisely what the next steps will be.”
Kerry’s representative, Martin Indyk, was scheduled to sit down with Israeli and Palestinian officials again on Sunday, though he made them promise they would refrain from shouting at each other this time.
“We will have to struggle to see how we fix it, how we make progress and what we must do to move forward. It is not simple, it is very complicated. It is a real crisis,” admitted Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni.
Livni has long been an ardent advocate of the peace talks, and a believer that Mahmoud Abbas is a real partner for peace. But it was Livni who, after reportedly confronting her Palestinian counterpart in a shouting match during negotiations last week, was the one to announce that Israel was cancelling the fourth release of Palestinian prisoners because of their unilateral action and failure to negotiate in good faith.
She suggested the way forward would be through a reduced role for the U.S. “Part of what happened in the past few months was more negotiations between us and the United States and less with the Palestinians,” Livni told reporters.
“I believe we need to move to more meetings, more direct negotiations, more than we have had so far, and I think the Americans know this,” Livni said. “American involvement — yes, but as facilitators of bilateral negotiations.”
Meanwhile, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) seized the opportunity of the chaotic state of the peace talks to call for new elections, or for Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid to join him in forming a new coalition.
“There is an alternative coalition in the Knesset today, which can bring peace. I call on Livni and Lapid, join me in an alternative political act,” he said.
“This government failed big time in social areas and now in diplomacy. [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is unable to do anything,” Herzog stated.