By Maher Abukhater and Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans Tuesday to press the issue of Palestinian statehood by applying for membership in 15 international agencies, despite strong Israeli opposition.
The move apparently spoiled plans by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to announce a breakthrough in talks. Instead, Abbas told Palestinian leadership gathered here that he will seek formal recognition of Palestinian statehood by the agencies because Israel did not release Palestinian prisoners on a schedule that was part of a deal reached last year to lure Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
“Unfortunately … this did not happen,” Abbas said in a meeting with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.
Israel, which already has released 78 prisoners in three groups, was to have released the final 26 Saturday.
Kerry had hoped to travel to Ramallah to announce an extension of talks, built on a three-way deal involving the potential early release of Jonathan Pollard, an American serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison, on charges of spying for Israel. The deal also called for a partial freeze in the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in exchange for Abbas’ agreement not to join the international groups.
The UN General Assembly recognized the Palestinian Authority as a nonmember observer state in 2012.
Kerry abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Abbas in Ramallah and now faces the possible collapse of his eight-month-old peace initiative.
With the negotiations facing an April 30 deadline, Israel refused to release the fourth batch of prisoners because Palestinians would not commit to continuing the talks.
Kerry had offered the release of Pollard as part of a deal to keep both sides negotiating into 2015. But Abbas appeared to bow to strong pressure to take a harder line.
Israelis fear that the Palestinians will use their standing in the organizations to bring war-crimes cases and increase international isolation of Israel.
The 15 groups that Abbas applied to on Tuesday do not include the International Criminal Court, Palestinian officials said. But Abbas said he would seek to join all 63 international agencies for which the Palestinian Authority became eligible in 2012, when its status in the United Nations was upgraded.
Israel and the United States have urged Palestinians not to seek membership in the groups. A federal law provides that the U.S. halt aid to the Palestinian Authority if it joins international agencies as a state. Israel has voiced particular concern about membership in the criminal court, which could give Palestinians a platform to bring charges over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its settlements there.
But Abbas has been under growing pressure from his domestic audience, which fears that Israel has the upper hand in the U.S.-sponsored negotiations, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former Obama administration official who is now with the Brookings Institution.
In addition to the dispute over the prisoners, Palestinian leaders are angry about news Tuesday that the Israeli Land Authority offered developers the rights to build 708 housing units on land Palestinians claim should be part of their future state.
The possible release of Pollard, 59, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who was jailed 28 years ago, has been highly controversial, especially with U.S. intelligence officials. U.S. officials view an early release as a possible ace in the hole they could play to make it easier for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make concessions that might anger his conservative supporters.
But Pollard’s potential release has drawn fierce opposition from U.S. officials in both parties, including former CIA chief George Tenet. They have argued that the huge trove of secrets released by Pollard did grave damage to U.S. national security, and that his release would set a dangerous precedent.
U.S. officials apparently hoped that with Pollard eligible for parole in November 2015, the backlash from any deal to set him free early would be diminished. But news that Pollard’s freedom could be part of the bargaining drew criticism from several quarters, including some supporters of Israel who argued that it would bring only a limited extension of negotiations that are widely seen to be a long shot.
On Tuesday, administration officials portrayed a Pollard release as a small concession for the top-priority goal of Mideast peace.
Asked about how the public might view release of Pollard, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the benefits of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians “transcend this issue and many others that are part of the discussions that we have.”
Kerry, at a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Brussels, didn’t respond to a question about Pollard’s status, but insisted that the peace effort continues.
“What is important to say about the Middle East right now is it is completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any final judgment, about today’s events and where things are,” he said.
©afp.com / Philippe Desmazes