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Israel ‘deeply disappointed’ by John Kerry’s remarks

Dispute unfolds as peace negotiations on the brink of collapse

JERUSALEM — In an unusually pointed rebuke of its ally the United States, Israel said Wednesday that it was “deeply disappointed” by Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks a day earlier that appeared to lay primary blame on Israel for the crisis in the US-brokered Middle East peace talks.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has brought the talks to the brink of collapse appeared to be developing into an open row between Israel and the United States, even as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were said to be planning a third meeting here this week with US mediators to try to resolve the crisis.

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In a sign that the sides were still far from reconciled, Israel on Wednesday directed its government ministers and senior ministry officials to refrain from meeting with their Palestinian counterparts, a move that officials said could delay bilateral projects.

The ban on contacts does not apply to the negotiators, and Israeli officials signaled that coordination between the two sides on security issues would continue. But it was intended to send a message that there would be no business as usual.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, but that the precipitating event of the impasse was Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units for a Jewish settlement in an area of Jerusalem across the 1967 lines, in territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said. “We find ourselves where we are.”

In what is being referred to here as “the poof speech,” Kerry laid out the chain of events that led to the verge of a breakdown.

Kerry’s comments ‘will both hurt the negotiations and harden Palestinian positions.’

Official in the office of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu  
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Clearly stung by Kerry’s version and his focus on the settlement issue, Israel countered Wednesday that it was the Palestinians who had “violated their fundamental commitments” by applying last week to join 15 international conventions and treaties.

Kerry’s remarks “will both hurt the negotiations and harden Palestinian positions,” said an official in the office of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

In Washington, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said at a briefing that Kerry was not blaming one side more than the other, “because they’ve both taken unhelpful steps.”

The Palestinian action came after Israel failed to release a promised fourth batch of prisoners by a late March deadline. Hours before the Palestinians decided on that course, Israel’s housing minister published construction bids for the contentious new housing.

Kerry, the official in Netanyahu’s office said, “knows that it was the Palestinians who said ‘no’ to continued direct talks with Israel in November; who said ‘no’ to his proposed framework for final status talks; who said ‘no’ to even discussing recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; who said ‘no’ to a meeting with Kerry himself; and who said ‘no’ to an extension of the talks.”

The wording appeared designed to cast the Palestinians in the role of peace rejectionists, echoing the Khartoum Resolution of 1967. That year, after the Middle East War, Arab heads of state laid out the main principles of their approach to Israel, which became known as “the three no’s” — no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with it.

The Israeli official added, “In the understandings reached prior to the talks, Israel did not commit to any limitation on construction. Therefore, the Palestinian claim that building in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, was a violation of the understandings is contrary to the facts. Both the US negotiating team and the Palestinians know full well that Israel made no such commitment.”

Xavier Abu Eid of the Palestinian negotiation affairs department said in response that Israel was “undermining the American role in the peace process.” The Palestinian side, he said, “never raised any issue that is not already an Israeli obligation.”

Israel is obliged to stop settlement activity, Abu Eid said, because it is considered illegal under international law. The Obama administration has described the settlements as “illegitimate.”

Israel’s failure to release the fourth batch of prisoners, he added, violated a US-brokered agreement.

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