JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke his silence on the collapsing peace talks Sunday by blaming Palestinian leaders for the crisis and threatening retaliatory steps.
In remarks at his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that just as the parties were nearing an agreement last week to extend the U.S.-brokered negotiations through the end of 2014, Palestinian leaders announced their decision to sign on to 15 treaties and conventions under the auspices of the United Nations.
“The Palestinians’ threats to appeal to the U.N. will not affect us. The Palestinians have much to lose by this unilateral move,” Netanyahu said. “These will only push a peace agreement farther away, and unilateral steps on their part will be met with unilateral steps on our part.”
Israel’s retaliatory measures could include withholding transfers of millions of dollars in taxes and fees that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinians say that it is Israel that has pushed the talks toward collapse.
To restart the peace process, Netanyahu promised in July to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of murdering Israelis. In return, the Palestinians agreed not to seek greater recognition as a state from the United Nations.
The Israelis released three groups, a total of 78 prisoners, but balked last week at freeing the last batch of 26 inmates.
The Palestinians say the Israelis reneged on their promise, adding that they believe it to be within their rights to go to the United Nations. Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed documents that would allow the Palestinians to become parties to 15 international treaties guaranteeing, among other things, the rights of women, children, the disabled and civilians in times of war.
Netanyahu’s remarks Sunday came after days of charges and countercharges as Palestinians and Israelis jockey to blame each other for the crisis. U.S. diplomats have said that both sides have made “unhelpful” moves.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared Friday that “it’s reality-check time” as to whether a deal can be reached and whether the United States will continue to play a role in bringing the two sides closer.
“You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises,” Kerry said last week as his signature diplomatic effort began to founder. “The leaders have to lead, and they have to be able to see a moment when it’s there.”
Palestinians complain that nothing has been achieved in eight months of negotiations and that the Israelis have refused to discuss specifics of the conflict, such as the status of East Jerusalem and the borders of a new Palestinian state.
“Israel wants never-ending negotiations, negotiations for the sake of negotiating, while it buys time to build more settlements,” a top Palestinian official, Yasser Abed Rabbo, told Voice of Palestine radio.
Netanyahu said Sunday, “We are prepared to continue the talks, but not at any price.”
As Netanyahu met with his cabinet ministers, U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk convened another closed-door meeting between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.
As the diplomatic gears were grinding, Israeli leaders began to turn on one another, assigning blame for the failure of talks.
The Israeli parliament announced it would return from its spring recess for a special session to investigate and debate what its Web site described as “the crisis in negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Chief negotiator Tzipi Livni said that an announcement last week by Housing Minister Uri Ariel that Israel wanted to build 708 housing units in a disputed community in East Jerusalem was timed to “torpedo” the efforts to make peace.
Ariel responded that Livni has “failed completely, and now she’s looking for someone to blame other than herself.”
Another top Israeli official, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, compared threats by Palestinians to take a case against Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to a gun without any bullets.
“Let them go. I’ll buy the ticket,” Bennett said.
Bennett said Israel should respond by bringing the Palestinians to the international court with their own charges of war crimes — specifically for the rockets fired from the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip at Israeli civilian population centers.