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By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM — Relations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders continued a downward spiral Wednesday with a new Israeli directive to its ministers to halt cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered government ministries to stop high-level communications with corresponding Palestinians, halting assorted economic and civilian cooperation efforts.

Netanyahu’s directive was an Israeli response to the “Palestinian abrogation of their commitments and violation of understandings,” said an Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official declined to say whether the government was planning to impose further sanctions on the Palestinian Authority.

The recent disruption of the peace talks erupted after Israel delayed the planned release of a group of Palestinian prisoners in an attempt to secure a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks past April.

In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted to the United Nations requests to join 15 international conventions, after which Israel canceled the prisoner release altogether, sending the talks into deep crisis.

Despite the disruptions in negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian officials have continued to work cooperatively to some degree on issues related to the environment, agriculture, tourism and infrastructure. Contacts at ministerial and top officials levels are now suspended, permitting only lower field-level cooperation, Israeli media reported.

Security coordination is exempt from the directive and will continue as usual. Also exempt is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, head of Israel’s negotiation team that has met several times in recent days with the Palestinian and U.S. delegates seek an end to the crisis.

The directive came several hours after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry addressed the crisis in the talks during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

While noting both sides had taken “unhelpful” positions, Kerry suggested the delayed prisoner release followed by the announcement of a controversial housing plan tipped the talks over the edge. “And then … 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry summarized.

So far, Netanyahu’s office has not responded publicly to Kerry’s comments, regarded as blaming Israel for the breakdown of the talks, but hawkish members of Netanyahu’s government rejected the notion. “Israel will never apologize for building in Jerusalem,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennet.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called Wednesday’s directive an “unnecessary move” that would undermine Israeli interests and the business sector. Commenting to Israeli media, Herzog said “frustration and helplessness are no policy.”

Photo: Downing Street via Flickr

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