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Israel Says It Is ‘Deeply Disappointed’ by Kerry’s Remarks on Peace Talks
Israel Says It Is ‘Deeply Disappointed’ by Kerry’s Remarks on Peace Talks
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JERUSALEM — In an unusually pointed rebuke of an ally, Israel said on Wednesday that it was “deeply disappointed” by Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks a day earlier that appeared to lay primary blame on Israel for the crisis in the American-brokered Middle East peace talks.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has brought the talks to the brink of collapse appeared to be developing into an open quarrel between Israel and the United States, even as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were said to be planning a third meeting here this week with American mediators to try to resolve the crisis.

In a sign that the sides were still far from reconciled, Israel on Wednesday directed its government ministers and senior ministry officials to refrain from meeting with their Palestinian counterparts, a move that officials said could delay bilateral projects.

  The ban on contacts does not apply to the negotiators, and Israeli officials signaled that coordination between the two sides on security issues would continue. But it was intended to send a message that there would be no business as usual.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Mr. Kerry said that both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, but that the precipitating event of the impasse was Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units for Jewish settlement in an area of Jerusalem across the 1967 lines, in territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Mr. Kerry said. “We find ourselves where we are.”

In what is being referred to here as the “poof speech,” Mr. Kerry laid out the chain of events that led to the verge of a breakdown.

Clearly stung by Mr. Kerry’s portrayal and his focus on the settlement issue, Israel countered on Wednesday that it was the Palestinians who had “violated their fundamental commitments” by applying last week to join 15 international conventions and treaties.

Mr. Kerry’s remarks “will both hurt the negotiations and harden Palestinian positions,” said an official in the office of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

In Washington, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said at a briefing that Mr. Kerry was not blaming one side more than the other, “because they’ve both taken unhelpful steps.”

The Palestinian action on the international bodies came after Israel failed to release a promised fourth group of prisoners by a late March deadline. Hours before the Palestinians decided on that course, Israel’s housing minister published construction bids for the contentious new housing.

Mr. Kerry, the official in Mr. Netanyahu’s office said, “knows that it was the Palestinians who said no to continued direct talks with Israel in November; who said no to his proposed framework for final status talks; who said no to even discussing recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; who said no to a meeting with Kerry himself; and who said no to an extension of the talks.”

That wording appeared intended to cast the Palestinians in the role of peace rejectionists, echoing the Khartoum Resolution of 1967. That year, after the Arab-Israeli War, Arab heads of state laid out the main principles of their approach to Israel, which became known as “the three nos” — no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with it.

The Israeli official added: “In the understandings reached prior to the talks, Israel did not commit to any limitation on construction. Therefore, the Palestinian claim that building in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, was a violation of the understandings is contrary to the facts. Both the American negotiating team and the Palestinians know full well that Israel made no such commitment.”

Xavier Abu Eid of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations unit said in response that Israel was “undermining the American role in the peace process.” The Palestinian side, he said, “never raised any issue that is not already an Israeli obligation.”

Israel is obliged to stop settlement activity, Mr. Abu Eid said, because it is considered illegal under international law. The Obama administration has described the settlements as illegitimate.

Israel’s failure to release the fourth group of prisoners, he added, violated an American-brokered agreement. As for extending the talks, he said, Israel has so far shown no interest in trying to reach an agreement establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

While the details of the negotiations have been kept secret at Mr. Kerry’s insistence, little progress appeared to have been made, with the sides stuck over fundamental issues like borders, security, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of the Palestinian refugees and Israel’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Under an American-brokered deal to resume negotiations last July, Israel had pledged to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four groups, and the Palestinians pledged not to turn to international bodies for the nine months allotted for the talks.

Israel said the Palestinians unilaterally applied to join the treaties last week as the Israeli government was preparing to approve a broader deal, including the prisoner release, on the condition that the Palestinians agreed to an extension of the negotiations beyond their April 29 expiration date.

But numerous senior Palestinian officials have said the prisoner release was part of a separate deal and not contingent on an extension of negotiations. They said they waited days after the March 29 deadline for the release and kept hearing from American officials that the Israeli government was about to approve the release, but nothing happened.

“Israel wants to see the negotiations continue and will persist in its efforts to resolve the current crisis,” the official from the Israeli prime minister’s office said. But he warned that “in response to unilateral Palestinian steps, Israel will take unilateral steps of its own.”

The Israeli ban on high-level contacts was the latest in a series of tit-for-tat measures.

Israel has already frozen plans for a Palestinian cellphone company to enter Gaza and for allowing 3G service in the West Bank. In addition, Israeli officials said plans to advance Palestinian housing and agricultural projects in parts of the West Bank where Israel maintains full control had also been delayed.

Ehab Bseiso, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, told Reuters that the Israeli decision to ban high-level contacts undermined international efforts “to revive the negotiations, to proceed with a constructive solution to the challenges facing the peace process.”

Some Israeli ministries have no contact with their Palestinian counterparts in any case, and most civilian issues are coordinated through the Israeli military administration in the West Bank. But staff members of the Israeli and Palestinian Finance Ministries routinely meet to coordinate the transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and there are frequent contacts on issues like the environment, tourism and communications.