The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

April 2, 2014

Palestinians: We don't want Kerry mission to fail

MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinians are not walking away from U.S.-led efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel, a top Palestinian official said Wednesday, a day after their renewed bid for international recognition of a "state of Palestine" threw Washington's already troubled Mideast mission into further disarray.

Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. negotiators are set to meet Wednesday night, officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.

As part of the terms for returning to negotiations in late July, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had promised to suspend Palestinian membership applications to United Nations agencies and international conventions.

Israel, in turn, pledged to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners during the talks, which were to last until late April.

But in a surprise move Tuesday, Abbas signed letters of accession to 15 international conventions, saying this was a response to Israel's failure to release the last of four groups of prisoners by the end of March.

Israel has not responded. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled plans to return Wednesday to the Middle East, but also said it's "completely premature" to write off the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

There were some indications from Palestinian officials that Abbas' unexpected step largely was intended as a pressure tactic. Keeping on good terms with the U.S. and negotiating the terms of a Palestinian state with Israel remain pillars of Abbas' political strategy.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Wednesday that the Palestinians are not turning away from negotiations.

"We hope that Kerry renews his efforts in the coming days," Abed Rabbo told a news conference. "We don't want his mission to fail."

The PLO official also suggested that joining the 15 international conventions would not lead to dramatic changes on the ground.

"This step will affirm the status of Palestine in the international community legally and politically," he said. "It is a good step on our way to get the recognition from the entire world of our status as a state, equal to other states, but under occupation."

In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in 1967 — as a non-member observer state. The vote came despite objections from the U.S. and Israel, which portrayed it as an attempt to bypass negotiations.

Palestinian officials have said that recognition paved the way for the Palestinians joining 63 U.N. agencies, conventions and institutions, including the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, handed the letters of accession signed by Abbas to the relevant parties Wednesday, including a U.N. envoy, his office said.

Among other things, Abbas requested accession to the Geneva Conventions, which establish standards of conduct and treatment of civilians at times of conflict, and to various human rights treaties.

The International Criminal Court was not on the list. ICC recognition could theoretically open the way to war crimes charges against Israel over its settlement construction on war-won land.

Abbas' step came as Kerry's mediation efforts appeared in trouble. Kerry had set an April 29 deadline for the basic outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, but in recent weeks has pushed to extend the talks until the end of the year.

The Palestinians said they would not discuss an extension until the last group of prisoners was released. Israel, in turn, was trying to make that group part of a new deal on extending the talks.

Earlier this week, Kerry apparently raised the possibility of releasing U.S. spy Jonathan Pollard into the mix in hopes of breaking the logjam.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu long has lobbied for an early release of Pollard, an American Jew who has served nearly 30 years for spying for Israel.

Separately, Palestinian officials have said Israel offered to show "restraint" on settlement building, including suspending government tenders for new construction, if talks are extended into 2015.

The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said such an offer is largely meaningless because thousands of settlement apartments have already been planned or are under construction. The Palestinians seek a complete settlement freeze if negotiations are to be extended.

On Monday, Israel renewed a call for contractor bids on 708 homes in Gilo, an Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem, said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now.

Ofran questioned the timing of the tenders, which were originally published in November. She said she suspected it was done to "make problems" in the faltering Israeli-Palestinians negotiations.

Arik Ben Shimon, a spokesman for Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel, said the tenders were reissued because earlier calls for bids failed to attract contractors. He said the timing was unrelated to the talks.

The Palestinians, along with much of the international community, view settlement construction as illegal and an obstacle to the creation of their hoped-for state. Israel has built dozens of settlements, now home to more than 550,000 Israelis, on occupied lands.

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Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.