RAMALLAH, West Bank – A decision by President Mahmoud Abbas to seek further international recognition of a "state of Palestine" — despite promises to hold off while negotiating with Israel — has thrown into disarray the troubled U.S. mediation efforts on a peace deal. Here's a look at the possible repercussions.
WHAT EXACTLY DID ABBAS DO?
He signed letters stating the state of Palestine would join 15 international conventions and treaties. This includes the Geneva Convention on protecting civilians in conflict zones as well as covenants prohibiting torture and discrimination against women. The letters were given Wednesday to the relevant parties, including a U.N. envoy.
The Palestinians say they have the right to seek membership in 63 U.N. agencies, international conventions and treaties as a result of the General Assembly's decision in November 2012 to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state. In the vote, the General Assembly said Palestine encompasses the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in 1967. Israel opposed the Palestinian bid, alleging it was an attempt to bypass negotiations.
WHAT LED TO THE DECISION?
Abbas initially promised to suspend Palestinian membership applications to U.N. agencies and international conventions for nine months of talks with Israel, which are to end April 29. Israel, in turn, pledged to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four installments by late March. Abbas says he was no longer bound by his commitment after Israel failed to free the fourth group.
DOES THIS DERAIL THE NEGOTIATIONS?
No. Abbas is still interested in a deal and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says it's premature to talk about a collapse of his mediation effort. A senior State Department official said Wednesday that both sides have taken "unhelpful steps," but have not indicated they want to end the negotiations.
There has been no apparent progress toward the outlines of an agreement about setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Abbas says he won't consider an extension of negotiations beyond April 29 until the last group of prisoners has been released. There's no sign Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet that demand. Netanyahu faces stiff opposition in his center-right coalition to freeing the prisoners, particularly 14 Arab citizens of Israel in that group.
COULD KERRY STILL SALVAGE THE NEGOTIATIONS?
Earlier this week, Kerry apparently raised the possibility of an early release of Jonathan Pollard, a U.S.-held spy for Israel, to break the impasse. Netanyahu has lobbied for years to free Pollard, an American who has already served nearly 30 years in prison. However, there's strong opposition in the U.S. to freeing Pollard. Even if a prisoner swap involving Pollard were to succeed and pave the way for an extension of negotiations, chances of reaching a peace deal are seen as extremely slim. From the start, there was little common ground between Abbas and Netanyahu.
WHAT'S THE FALLOUT FROM ABBAS' DECISION TO JOIN 15 INTERNATIONAL CONVENTIONS?
It's seen as a largely symbolic step and as an appeal to Kerry to do more to pressure Israel into compliance. Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to Abbas, said joining the 15 conventions doesn't give the Palestinians new tools to hold Israel accountable in the international arena, while binding the Palestinian self-rule government to uphold human rights standards in the areas it administers.
DOES THIS SIGNAL A CHANGE OF STRATEGY FOR ABBAS?
No. Abbas had made the release of the 104 prisoners, all held for more than 20 years, his top priority, in part because it's a consensus issue among Palestinians. Once Israel failed to release the last group, Abbas came under domestic pressure to respond with a dramatic act. The ongoing negotiations with Israel are unpopular because there's little expectation of a deal, while Abbas — having already overstayed his term as president by five years — needs to protect his remaining political legitimacy by not going against popular sentiment.
At the same time, close ties with the U.S. and attempts to negotiate a deal with Israel remain the pillars of Abbas' strategy. A shift would only become apparent if he takes more drastic steps, such as pursuing war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court over its settlement activities on occupied lands.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee, traveling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, contributed to this report.