By Noah Browning
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - 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 April 29 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 U.S. 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 imperiled 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 U.N. 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 skepticism that he would fare any better than Obama, who undertook a failed Middle East peace bid in his first term.
"We're in predictable crisis mode," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The question is whether this is a serious hiccup that gets us to something significant or this is a serious hiccup that says the whole thing was a farce all along."
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 recognize 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 U.S. 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".
A senior U.S. official sought to play down the idea that the peace process was falling apart, and said both sides had told Washington they were willing to keep negotiating ahead of the April 29 deadline.
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 U.S. Congress, where pro-Israel sentiment runs high. Several lawmakers warned on Wednesday that a Palestinian resort to international agencies could trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid.
"It is counterproductive and doesn't move them closer to any final resolution," New York Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, told a congressional hearing.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, deputy head of the PLO, cautioned on Wednesday against simply returning to an "empty routine" at the negotiating table. He reaffirmed that Palestinians wanted talks to focus on setting the future borders of their state.
"We can't return to the empty routine, a search for a framework for talks - this empty routine which is negotiating about negotiating," he told reporters.
Continuing the talks beyond the end of this month, he said, "must proceed from and depend on one main point, and this is looking into the issue of borders."
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.
Law professor Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, described Abbas's signature on the conventions as "merely symbolic". He noted Abbas had stopped short of applying for membership in international organizations.
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 U.S. 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 skeptical Israeli public.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Lesley Wroughton in Brussels, Jeff Mason aboard Air Force One, Maayan Lubell and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Angus MacSwan, Toni Reinhold and Mohammad Zargham)