Jerusalem - An Israeli minister on Wednesday warned of punitive action if the Palestinians pursued efforts to join UN agencies, as hopes of a breakthrough in the US-led peace process faded rapidly.
In a surprise announcement late on Tuesday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he had begun steps to join 15 UN agencies, angering Israel and prompting US Secretary of State John Kerry to cancel an imminent a trip to Ramallah.
The announcement was a blow to Kerry's frenetic efforts to resolve a dispute over Palestinian prisoners and find a way to extend the fragile peace talks beyond an April 29 deadline.
Although Abbas's move won him praise at home, commentators suggested it was little more than a publicity stunt with no real practical meaning.
The Palestinian leader's decision came several hours after Kerry had wrapped up a 15-hour visit to Jerusalem during which he met twice with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sources said the two were discussing a proposal to resolve the prisoner issue and ensure the continuation of the peace process into 2015.
The current deadlock was triggered by Israel's refusal to free a last batch of Palestinian prisoners as part of commitments which facilitated a resumption of peace talks in July 2013.
In exchange, the Palestinians had pledged to freeze all moves to seek membership in UN organisations.
But a crisis erupted at the weekend when Israel failed to release 26 prisoners - the last of a batch of 104 - prompting the Palestinians to respond by resuming their approach to UN agencies.
In Brussels, Kerry was on Wednesday continuing intensive efforts to resolve the standoff, making a series of phone calls with his negotiating team in Israel, his spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
He was expected to spend the morning at NATO headquarters “for brief pull asides with foreign ministers” as well as to make calls from the US mission at NATO, an official said.
On Tuesday, Kerry said he was cancelling Wednesday's planned visit to Ramallah in the West Bank but reserved judgement on the situation, urging both sides to demonstrate restraint.
“It is completely premature tonight to draw... any final judgement about today's events and where things are. This is a moment to be really clear-eyed and sober about this process,” he told reporters, urging both sides to “show restraint.”
Abbas's announcement drew an angry response in Israel where a hardline cabinet minister warned any approach to UN institutions would cost the Palestinians dearly.
“They will pay a heavy price,” warned Tourism Minster Uzi Landau, suggesting Israel could respond by annexing parts of the West Bank.
“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,” he told public radio.
Another government official, who would not be named, said Abbas's announcement had thrown everything up in the air.
“Everything has changed now, is there even a deal now? We don't know,” he said.
Explaining the move, Abbas said the decision to seek membership in 15 UN agencies, beginning with the Fourth Geneva Convention, was the Palestinians' right and not an act of defiance against Washington.
The Palestinians had repeatedly threatened to resume their action through international courts and the UN over Israel's settlement expansion on occupied territory in the West Bank and in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
But Israeli commentators suggested there was little substance to the latest move.
“Signing documents is a long way from sending them to be ratified by UN institutions,” wrote Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot newspaper, saying the Palestinians were very aware of the price they would pay for derailing the talks.
“Abu Mazen (Abbas) is the first to know that if he derails the talks by taking a unilateral step, he will be doused with cold water not only by the US Congress, but by the European Union.”
Robbie Sabel, professor of law at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said the Palestinians were only planning to become a party to various international treaties, in a move which was “purely symbolic.”
“The reason Israel is unhappy about it is because it reinforces the Palestinian belief that somehow the UN will deliver them a state,” he said.
“Beyond that, there's no real substance to what they're doing.” - Sapa-AFP