RAMALLAH, West Bank – In a surprise move that could derail U.S. peace efforts, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday resumed a campaign for further international recognition of a state of Palestine, despite a previous promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel.
Shortly after Abbas’ announcement, Secretary of State John F. Kerry canceled plans to return to the Middle East today, but also said it’s “completely premature” to write off the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks he restarted in late July.
“We are continuing, even now ... to be engaged with both parties,” Kerry told a news conference in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. “We urge both sides to show restraint while we work with them.”
There was no immediate Israeli comment. However, Abbas’ decision threw into doubt Israeli claims that a deal was emerging that would have extended Israel-Palestinian talks beyond an April 29 deadline and included the release of Jonathan Pollard, an American serving a life sentence after his conviction for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel in the 1980s.
It remained unclear whether Abbas’ dramatic announcement was a negotiating tactic or signaled a fundamental shift in strategy.
In a hastily convened ceremony televised live from his West Bank headquarters, Abbas signed applications for Palestinians to join to 15 international treaties and conventions.
Abbas said he was compelled to act because Israel had failed to carry out a promised release of Palestinian prisoners by the end of March.
At the same time, Abbas said he is not seeking a confrontation with the United States and remains determined to “reach a peaceful solution through negotiations” with Israel.
Kerry had nudged Israelis and Palestinians back to the table in July, after a five-year break in negotiations, and got them to commit to nine months of negotiations, until April 29. The target was to reach a framework deal on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
As part of the resumption of talks, Abbas had promised to suspend efforts to seek further international recognition of a state of Palestine for nine months.
A major nod from the U.N. came in November 2012, when the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – lands Israel occupied in 1967 – as a non-member observer, overriding Israeli and U.S. objections.
Palestinian officials have said that vote paved the way for Palestine to join 63 international institutions, conventions and treaties. A Palestine Liberation Organization statement quoted Abbas as saying Tuesday that the 15 letters he signed were for conventions and treaties that can be joined immediately.
Israel, meanwhile, had pledged last year to release 104 of the longest-held Palestinian prisoners during the course of the negotiations. The Palestinians say the fourth and final group was to have been released by the end of March. Israel argues that the release was contingent on the Palestinians negotiating “in good faith.”
In recent days, Kerry has been trying to negotiate a deal on extending the talks until the end of the year. An Israeli official close to the negotiations said earlier Tuesday that Kerry was pushing a formula that would include Pollard’s release.
In exchange for Pollard, Israel would free the last group of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners, show “restraint” in settlement building and release about 400 additional Palestinian prisoners it would select, the official said.
Pollard’s ex-wife, Anne, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that she still hopes for her ex-husband’s release and fears for his health.
“I really, truly have no idea how he has lasted this long,” she said. “And I have no idea how much longer he could last.”