Israel’s top negotiator said Thursday that Israel will not release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, a move that brings the sputtering U.S.-backed peace talks ever closer to collapse.

In an all-night meeting brokered by U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk, Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni told her Palestinian counterparts that since the Palestinians had taken unilateral steps toward greater recognition by the United Nations, the Israeli government would cancel the final release of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, according to Israeli officials close to the talks.

At the meeting, Israel also called upon the Palestinians to withdraw the letters they had signed to accede to 15 U.N. treaties and protocols and return to the negotiating table.

To bring the Palestinians back into the talks, U.S. diplomats had persuaded the Israelis to promise last summer to free 104 long-serving Palestinian inmates, many convicted of murdering Israeli civilians. So far, 78 have been freed, but the final group has not.

As the deadline loomed Saturday for freeing the last group, Israel balked, demanding that the Palestinians agree to continue talks through the end of 2014.

Jonathan Pollard, now 59 and shown above in 1998, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy who was arrested in 1985 after providing classified information to Israeli agents. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for release in November 2015. (Photo by AP)

What Israel wants, what the U.S. wants and what might happen next

A few of the very negative things U.S. officials have said about Pollard

The Palestinians said they wanted the Israelis to honor their commitment to freeing the 104, and that after the last group was released, they would discuss continuing talks. Ziad Abu Ein, a Palestinian official who oversees prisoner affairs, said, “The Israelis wanted us to buy the same car twice. We refused.”

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu roughly an hour before Israel’s announcement concerning the prisoners, and afterward with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The State Department did not provide details of the conversations.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu roughly an hour before Israel’s announcement concerning the prisoners. The State Department did not provide details of the conversation.

Kerry planned to speak to Abbas later Thursday, State Department officials said.

Earlier Thursday, Kerry had appealed directly to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, urging them not to miss a fleeting “moment” to make peace. Israelis and Palestinians began to jostle Wednesday over who should be blamed for the possible collapse of peace talks, even as their representatives met with U.S. officials late into the night to try to keep the negotiations alive.

The United States will keep trying, “no matter what,” to bring the two sides together and broker peace, Kerry said at the start of unrelated diplomatic meetings in the Algerian capital. “But in the end,” he added, “you can facilitate, you can push you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises.”

Two days after a major breach between the two sides, it remained unclear Thursday whether talks would survive even to the April 29 deadline Kerry had originally set for a deal. He had been seeking an extension of talks when Abbas defied American negotiators and announced Tuesday that he was resuming shelved efforts to seek greater Palestinian statehood recognition through the United Nations.

Kerry immediately canceled plans to visit Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday but spoke by phone with both him and Netanyahu.

“The leaders have to lead,” Kerry said Thursday, “and they have to be able to see a moment when it’s there.”

U.S. officials have long said that a real deal to end more than 60 years of conflict will depend on the will and endurance of both sides, and that Washington can only help as a broker, ice-breaker or guarantor. Kerry has made the resumption of stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks his signature cause as President Obama’s second-term chief diplomat.

“There’s an old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” Kerry said, his voice tight. “Now it’s time to drink, and the leaders need to know that.”

Palestinian leaders had assured the United States that they wished to continue the peace negotiations. The Palestinian negotiating team released a statement Wednesday that stressed commitment to continuing the talks until the original April 29 end date.

A State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, insisted Wednesday that the talks were not at a dead end. The United States does not assign blame for the current crisis, she said.

“Look, to be clear, over the last 24 hours, there have been unhelpful actions taken on both sides here, and we didn’t think it was a productive time for the secretary to return to the region,” Harf said, referring to the Palestinians’ signing of the U.N. treaties and an announcement by Israel that it would build 708 housing units in disputed neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

“But we’re not playing the blame game,” she said. “There is a chance to move this process forward. There is still a chance for this that will require tough decisions by both of the parties. They’ve made tough decisions up until this point, but we can’t make them for them. They need to make them now.”

Riyad H. Mansour, a Palestinian diplomat who serves as permanent observer of Palestine to the United Nations, told reporters Wednesday that the U.N. agreements are a first step in a phased plan to gain greater statehood power.

“The leadership will observe and see how things unfold, and it will decide accordingly,” whether and when to take further steps, Mansour said.

The United States opposes the U.N. path to statehood recognition, saying that, ultimately, any viable sovereign Palestinian state must arise from talks with the Israelis. Israel’s military occupies much of the West Bank and maintains a naval and land blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel and the United States are also worried that membership in U.N. bodies with enforcement powers would allow Palestinians to bring human rights and legal claims against Israel.

Neither side has informed Indyk, the chief U.S. envoy, that they want to quit the talks, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the discussions.

Livni, the Israeli Justice Minister who is leading Israel’s negotiating team, had told the news Web site Walla! on Wednesday evening that the steps the Palestinians had taken in the past 24 hours were bad for the negotiations and bad for the Palestinians.

“If they want a country, they have to understand that it will only come via negotiations,” she said.