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US scrambles to rescue Mideast talks

A senior Palestinian official said the talks had become 'negotiating about negotiating'.

A man holding a Palestinian flag and a woman carrying an olive tree on Land Day during which people plant olive trees near the Israeli border in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip. Picture: AFP.

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The Obama administration scrambled, on Wednesday to rescue faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after what it called "unhelpful, unilateral actions" by both sides.

A surprise decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday to sign more than a dozen international conventions that could give Palestinians greater leverage against Israel left the United States searching for a way to keep the talks going past an 29 April deadline.

"We are disappointed by the unhelpful, unilateral actions that both parties have taken in recent days," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One, as President Barack Obama headed to Michigan.

He said Secretary of State John Kerry was "in close touch with our negotiating team, which remains on the ground in the region to continue discussions with the parties". Israeli and Palestinian negotiators planned to meet on Wednesday night with US envoy Martin Indyk, sources familiar with the talks said.

In its first comment on the crisis, Israel said it was up to Abbas to resolve the standoff, which has imperilled Kerry's eight-month-old peace effort.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel had done "all it could to try to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, and now the ball is in their court."

The Palestinians have handed over to a UN representative and other diplomats applications to join 15 international conventions. They include the Geneva Conventions, the key text of international law on the conduct of war and occupation.

A senior Palestinian official, voicing frustration exacerbated by Israel's failure to carry out a pledged release of several dozen Palestinian prisoners, said on Wednesday that the talks had become merely "negotiating about negotiating".

Palestinian officials said Israel's failure to free the prisoners meant Abbas was no longer bound to a commitment not to confront it at the United Nations and other international bodies.

The developments further complicated efforts by Kerry to piece together a three-way deal to push the negotiations into 2015. He launched his initiative in July amid deep scepticism that he would fare any better than Obama, who undertook a failed Middle East peace bid in his first term.

The talks were already in trouble over the issues of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, and Palestinian opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

Israel had said it first wanted a Palestinian commitment to negotiate past the original target date for a deal before freeing the last of the 104 prisoners it promised to release as part of US efforts to restart the negotiations in July.

UP TO THE PARTIES

Kerry cancelled a planned visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday to meet Abbas, saying it was important to keep the peace process moving but "in the end, it is up to the parties".

Palestinians hope Abbas's move will give them a stronger basis to appeal to the International Criminal Court and eventually lodge formal complaints against Israel for its continued occupation of territory seized in 1967, lands they see as vital to an independent state. Most countries deem the Israeli settlements illegal.

But Abbas's decision could backfire on him in the US Congress, where pro-Israel sentiment runs high. Several lawmakers warned on Wednesday that a Palestinian resort to international agencies could trigger a cutoff of US aid.

The conventions signed by Abbas were mostly sets of international standards on social and rights issues, such as conventions against discrimination against women and for the rights of disabled people as well as the Geneva Conventions.

Kerry made an unscheduled visit to Jerusalem on Monday seeking to extend the negotiations by putting together a proposal that included the possible release of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy jailed in the United States since the 1980s.

The package, officials close to the talks said, included an additional Israeli release of hundreds of jailed Palestinians and a possible partial freeze on the settlements.

Pollard, a US citizen and former navy analyst, is serving a life term for spying for Israel. His freedom would be a political triumph for Netanyahu, making it easier for him to sell a wider release of jailed Palestinians to cabinet members and a sceptical Israeli public.