JERUSALEM — The Middle East peace talks verged on a breakdown Tuesday night, after President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority defied the United States and Israel by taking concrete steps to join 15 international agencies — a move to gain the benefits of statehood outside the negotiations process.
The move, which appeared to catch US and Israeli officials by surprise, prompted Secretary of State John F. Kerry to cancel a planned return to the region on Wednesday, in which he had expected to complete an agreement extending negotiations through 2015.
In that emerging deal, the United States would release an American convicted of spying for Israel more than 25 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Abbas, who had vowed not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 expiration of the talks that Kerry started last summer, said he was taking this course because Israel had failed to release a fourth batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March, as promised.
Israeli officials say they are not bound by their pledge because no meaningful negotiations had taken place since November.
US officials, while rattled, said the Palestinians appeared to be using leverage against Israel rather than trying to scuttle the negotiations. Abbas, they noted, did not move toward joining the International Criminal Court, a step Israel fears most because the Palestinians could use the court to contest Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Still, a senior US official said Kerry’s decision not to return to the region immediately reflected a growing impatience in the White House, which believes that his mediating efforts have reached their limit and that the two sides need to work their way out of the current impasse.
In announcing the moves, Abbas said, “This is our right.” He has been under pressure from other Palestinian leaders and the public to leverage the nonmember observer-state status they won at the United Nations in 2012 to join a total of 63 international bodies.
“We do not want to use this right against anybody or to confront anybody,” he said, as he signed the membership applications live on Palestinian television. “We don’t want to collide with the US administration. We want a good relationship with Washington because it helped us and exerted huge efforts. But because we did not find ways for a solution, this becomes our right.”
The United States voted against the Palestinians’ 2012 bid in the UN General Assembly, and it blocked a similar effort in 2011 at the Security Council, arguing that negotiations with Israel were the only path to peace and statehood.
Washington has also opposed Palestinian membership in the international agencies, which under a law passed by Congress could prompt a withdrawal of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and a shutdown of the Palestinian mission in Washington.
While the Palestinians’ pursuit of the international route is widely viewed as a poison pill for the peace talks, both Abbas and Kerry held out hope Tuesday night that they could still be salvaged. The agencies Abbas moved to join Tuesday included the Geneva and Vienna conventions and those dealing with women’s and children’s rights.
“It is completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any kind of final judgment, about today’s events and where things are,” Kerry told reporters in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO foreign ministers on the Ukraine crisis.
“I’m not going to get into the who, why, what, when, where, how or why we’re where we are today,” he added. “The important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward.”
“Even tonight,” Kerry said, “both parties say they want to continue to try to find a way forward.”