World Bulletin/News Desk
Israel announced on Wednesday a partial freeze in high-level contacts with the Palestinians and also threatened economic steps after they signed international conventions, deepening a crisis menacing U.S.-brokered peace talks.
Israeli government officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered cabinet members, directors-general of government ministries and other senior officials not to meet their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, said Israeli-Palestinian ministerial meetings were rare but voiced concern about the possibility of Israeli economic sanctions.
The order does not apply to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief peace negotiator, or to defence and security officials, they said. A U.S. mediator has held a series of meetings over the past week to try to push the troubled talks past an original April 29 deadline for a deal.
"This decision undermines all international efforts ... to revive the negotiations, to proceed with a constructive solution to the challenges facing the peace process," said PA spokesman Ehab Bseiso.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had issued the order in response to "the Palestinians' grave violation of their commitments in the framework of the peace talks" - a reference to the signing of 15 international agreements last week.
The ban was imposed just hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Israel's announcement on April 1 of plans to build about 700 housing units in East Jerusalem was the immediate cause of talks plunging into crisis.
Kerry's comments in testimony to Congress on Tuesday raised eyebrows in Netanyahu's governing coalition. "To accuse us of causing this? I think he's wrong," Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told Israel Radio.
At his Congressional appearance, Kerry said both sides had taken "unhelpful" steps in recent days and that he hoped they would find a way to resume serious negotiations, noting they had held a lengthy meeting on Monday.
An Israeli official told Reuters Israel had taken what he called "very modest steps" after the conventions were signed. "If they (the Palestinians) continue on this path, we have other options," the official added.
ADDITIONAL SANCTIONS WEIGHED
Another punitive Israeli step under "serious consideration" was to deduct up to $75 million in tax revenue transfers to the Palestinians, the Israeli official said.
Citing Palestinian figures, Israel estimates this is the sum of annual Palestinian aid provided to their prisoners in Israeli jails convicted of violence, including lethal attacks.
Under interim peace deals, Israel collects and transfers to the PA some $100 million a month in taxes on goods imported into the Palestinian territories. Israel has previously frozen the payments during times of heightened tensions.
Palestinian officials said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had signed the international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions covering the conduct of war and occupation, in response to Israel's failure to carry out a promised release of several dozen Palestinian prisoners a few days earlier.
Palestinians were further angered by the subsequent announcement on settlements.
At a cabinet session on Sunday, Netanyahu pledged to retaliate for Abbas's move, which Israel sees as a unilateral step toward statehood and an attempt to gain leverage over it.
When the peace talks restarted last July, Israel had conditioned freedom for the fourth and last group of the 104 prisoners it had pledged to release on a Palestinian commitment to extend the negotiations beyond April.
It said the tender to build new houses in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state, had been issued last year and was resubmitted because there had been no initial takers.
Palestinians fear settlements, built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, could deny them a viable state. Most countries consider the settlements illegal. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem and says it intends to keep major settlement blocs in any future peace deal.
Orders crackdown on pro-settler vandals
Meanwhile, Netanyahu on Tuesday ordered a crackdown on pro-settler activists accused of assaulting Israeli troops at a Jewish enclave in the occupied West Bank.
Following news reports that settlers had thrown stones at reservist troops, slashed their tents, spilled kerosene and overturned equipment at a Jewish enclave near Nablus, Netanyahu demanded that defence chiefs "act with all due force" to enforce the law.
There were no reported injuries in the assault, which settlers said followed the military's razing of homes built near the enclave of Yitzhar without government authorisation.
Israeli public anger was particularly piqued at the vandalism amid publication of embarrassing accounts of soldiers standing idly by as their encampment was destroyed.
The assault also came just two days after a senior officer had his tyres punctured at the same site.
Human rights groups have often accused Israel of failing to take steps against pro-settler Israelis accused of assaulting Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel has permitted more than 120 settlements to be built in West Bank territory it captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians seek for a state. In addition to these, more than 100 unauthorised outposts dot the territory.
Palestinians, and much of the world, sees the settlements as illegal and an obstacle in U.S.-brokered peace talks, at risk of collapse with each side accusing the other of violating terms of negotiations launched last year.Last Mod: 09 Nisan 2014, 23:05