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Israeli minister warns Palestinians to pay for UN move

April 2, 2014 9:26 A.M. (Updated: April 3, 2014 10:58 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- An Israeli minister on Wednesday warned of punitive action if the PLO pursued efforts to join UN agencies, as hopes of a breakthrough in the US-led peace process faded rapidly.

"If they are now threatening (to go to UN institutions), they must know something simple -- they will pay a heavy price," Tourism Minster Uzi Landau told public radio.

President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday said he had begun steps to join several UN agencies, abandoning a pledge to freeze such action for the duration of peace talks -- which end in just four weeks.

The Palestinians had repeatedly threatened to resume their action through international courts and the UN over Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is considered illegal under international law.

"One of the possible measures will be Israel applying sovereignty over areas which will clearly be part of the State of Israel in any future solution," said Landau, a member of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu faction.

Landau's remarks were referring to areas of the occupied West Bank populated by Jewish settlers which Israel hopes to retain in any future peace deal.

Israel could also hurt the Palestinians economically by acting "to block financial aid to them," the minister added.

Abbas made his announcement just hours after Israel reissued tenders for hundreds of settler homes in annexed East Jerusalem, as Washington was working around the clock to resolve a major dispute over Palestinian prisoners.

The standoff came soon after US Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Tuesday after a lightning visit.

He had been due to fly back to the region on Wednesday for talks in Ramallah with Abbas but he cancelled his visit following the Palestinian leader's announcement, while attempting to remain optimistic.

"It is completely premature tonight to draw ... any final judgement about today's events and where things are," he said in Brussels.

The top US diplomat had hoped to convince the Palestinians to extend the faltering talks beyond their April 29 deadline, with the sides discussing a proposal which would have included a limited freeze on settlement construction.

US peace efforts were already teetering on the brink after Israel refused to free a fourth and final group of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners, which would have completed an agreement that had brought the sides back to the table.

"We aren't acting against the United States, nor against any other party. It is our right (to do so) and we accepted to postpone using it for nine months," Abbas said of the decision to seek membership of UN agencies.

The Islamic movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, welcomed the move by Abbas,

A poke in the eye

The negotiations have faltered over several issues, notably Israel's settlement expansion in occupied Palestinian territory, with the Palestinians demanding a freeze on settlement construction, including in east Jerusalem.

Tuesday's 708 tenders in the east Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Gilo came on top of thousands of new homes announced over the course of the talks.

Israeli NGO Ir Amim described the tenders as "a poke in the eye of both the Palestinians and the Americans," army radio said.

And Hagit Ofran, from Israeli's Peace Now NGO, accused the housing ministry of "trying to forcefully undermine the peace process ... and John Kerry's efforts to promote it."

On Monday, the Palestinians gave Kerry a 24-hour deadline to come up with a solution to the prisoner row, warning that failure to do so would see them turning to UN bodies to press their claims for statehood.

Move 'not against America'

But late Tuesday afternoon, Abbas announced a request to join "15 UN agencies and international treaties, beginning with the Fourth Geneva Convention.

"The demands (for membership) will be sent immediately" to the relevant agencies, he said.

"This is not a move against America, or any other party -- it is our right, and we agreed to suspend it for nine months," he said, without explaining why he had acted before that period ended.

Kerry had met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for two hours late Monday before meeting Palestinian negotiators, then the pair held a second meeting early Tuesday.

US efforts have been focused recently on getting the parties to agree an extension to the end of the year.

A US proposal to continue talks was to include a limited freeze on settlement construction, with Israel adopting "a policy of restraint with (West Bank) government tenders" but would not include annexed East Jerusalem.

Sources close to the negotiations had said Washington was also mulling a proposal to free Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in Washington in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison for spying on America on Israel's behalf.

One of the sources also said the final batch of Palestinian prisoners would be freed, and Israel would also agree to free another 400 security prisoners not involved in deadly anti-Israeli raids.

But White House Jay Carney said before the Tuesday afternoon developments that President Barack Obama had not made any decision on Pollard.

Separately, a spokesman for the US Justice Department said Pollard had waived his right to attend a meeting of a parole board that could have re-examined his ongoing detention.
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