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Saturday 20 September 2014

Israel ministers told to halt talks

Published 09/04/2014 | 10:42

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has said cabinet ministers and their ministry directors can no longer meet Palestinian counterparts

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his ministers to cut off contact with their Palestinian counterparts, the latest in a series of troubles plaguing floundering US-brokered peace talks.

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The move is retaliation for a Palestinian bid to join United Nations agencies, which an official said was a violation of the Palestinians' commitment in the peace talks. The Palestinians dismissed the Israeli move, saying both sides rarely meet now as it is.

Under the peace talks' terms, Israel promised to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four groups. At the same time, the Palestinians said they would suspend a campaign to sign up Palestine, recognised by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state, for as many as 63 UN agencies, treaties and conventions.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas signed letters of accession for 15 international conventions after Israel last week failed to release the fourth group of prisoners and renewed a push to build homes in an Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem - the area of the holy city sought by the Palestinians for their future capital. Israel then called off the final prisoner release.

Under Mr Netanyahu's order, Israeli cabinet ministers and their ministry directors can no longer meet Palestinian counterparts, though lower-level contacts will continue, said the official.

Israel's chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, would be exempt from Mr Netanyahu's order, the official said, suggesting the actual impact of the order on the talks would be minimal.

High-level contacts between top Israeli and Palestinian officials are already rare, Palestinian government spokesman Ihab Bsaiso said.

"This won't affect our daily life or government business," Mr Bsaiso said.

Mr Bsaiso did express concern that Israeli tax transfers to the Palestinians could be disrupted. Under interim peace accords, Israel collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinians and then transfers the funds each month. The exact sum of the money, roughly 100 million dollars, is set in talks between senior finance officials.

Without this money, the Palestinian Authority would have a difficult time paying the salaries of its tens of thousands of employees. Israel's finance ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Mr Netanyahu's order is the latest step by Israel to sanction the Palestinians for their UN bid. Israel has also prevented Palestinian mobile phone company Wataniya from transferring equipment to Gaza.

In the past week, the US has been trying to salvage the peace talks, brokering a series of meetings between the two sides.

US secretary of state John Kerry, who has been leading the effort, appeared to single out Israel for the faltering talks on Tuesday, saying Israel refused to release prisoners as promised and advanced plans to build new settlements.

"And, poof, that was sort of the moment," Mr Kerry said. "We find ourselves where we are."

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