London and Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The future of the US-sponsored Israel–Palestine peace process was thrown into doubt on Tuesday after the escalation of a dispute over an agreement to release a group of Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, citing Israeli delays in releasing 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners as part of an existing deal, signed several applications for membership of UN bodies on behalf of the “State of Palestine” in a live TV broadcast, in addition to ratifying several international treaties.
Among the treaties signed was the Fourth Geneva Convention, which regulates the conduct of war and the occupation of foreign territory.
The move followed Israeli demands that the nine-month deadline for the peace talks be extended beyond April 29 in return for the release of the prisoners.
The group is the final batch of 104 prisoners Israel agreed to release in July 2013, following a demand from Palestinian leaders as a condition for the resumption of negotations following a break of several years.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, Wasel Abu Youssef, said: “This step comes in response to Israel’s breach of the agreement to release the prisoners by the 29th of last month.”
“John Kerry promised us that Israel would decide by Tuesday to release the fourth batch of prisoners, but they failed to do that,” he added.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on Tuesday, Abu Youssef said that Abbas would continue to press for a larger Palestinian presence at the UN if talks stalled, and for a halt to the expansion of Israeli settlements.
In response to the move, US Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled a planned visit to Ramallah on Wednesday, and called on both sides to “show restraint” and continue to negotiate.
“The important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward. In the end, this is up to the parties,” Kerry said.
On Monday, Kerry interrupted a NATO meeting in Brussels to travel to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to come up with a new proposal to move the talks forward.
Kerry proposed a freeze in Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and the release of more Palestinian prisoners, partly in exchange for the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former US Navy intelligence analyst jailed for spying for Israel in 1987.
Israeli sources speaking on the condition of anonymity said: “Abbas’ decisions change the rules of the game and will have dangerous repercussions at all levels, having caused the failure of Kerry’s mission.”
The sources added: “The Palestinian Authority is actively annulling the Oslo Agreement by bypassing the negotiations and acting as an independent state . . . Abbas has shown his true face in his refusal to reach a compromise solution for obstacles which appear during the negotiations.”
Meanwhile, in what is likely to be seen as another obstacle to progress in the peace process, Israel issued tenders for the expansion of the settlement of Gilo in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, according to activists from the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now.
According to the organization, the Israeli government pushed forward plans for more than 700 new homes, angering Palestinian officials.
“All settlement activities must end because they violate international law,” Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an adviser to President Abbas, told reporters.
Kifah Ziboun contributed reporting from Ramallah