By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel announced on Wednesday a partial freeze in high-level contacts with the Palestinians in retaliation for their signing of international conventions, deepening a crisis that threatens to wreck U.S.-brokered peace talks.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, said Israeli-Palestinian ministerial meetings were rare but voiced concern that the step could be followed by economic sanctions.
Israeli government officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered cabinet members, directors-general of government ministries and other senior officials not to meet their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority.
The order does not apply to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief peace negotiator, or to defense and security officials, they said. A U.S. mediator has held a series of meetings over the past week to try to push the troubled talks past an original April 29 deadline for a deal.
"This decision undermines all international efforts ... to revive the negotiations, to proceed with a constructive solution to the challenges facing the peace process," said PA spokesman Ehab Bseiso.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had issued the order in response to "the Palestinians' grave violation of their commitments in the framework of the peace talks" - a reference to the signing of 15 international agreements last week.
The ban was imposed just hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Israel's announcement on April 1 of plans to build about 700 housing units in East Jerusalem was the immediate cause of talks plunging into crisis.
Kerry's comments in testimony to Congress on Tuesday raised eyebrows in Netanyahu's governing coalition. "To accuse us of causing this? I think he's wrong," Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told Israel Radio.
At his Congressional appearance, Kerry said both sides had taken "unhelpful" steps in recent days and that he hoped they would find a way to resume serious negotiations, noting they had held a lengthy meeting on Monday.
Israeli and Palestinian officials cooperate on civilian issues such as the environment, water and energy, but Bseiso said this usually does not entail face-to-face meetings.
The PA's main concern focuses on possible economic curbs.
Under interim peace deals, Israel collects and transfers to the PA some $100 million a month in taxes on goods imported into the Palestinian territories. Israel has previously frozen the payments during times of heightened tensions.
Palestinian officials said Abbas had signed the international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions covering the conduct of war and occupation, in response to Israel's failure to carry out a promised release of several dozen Palestinian prisoners a few days earlier.
Palestinians were further angered by the subsequent announcement on settlements.
At a cabinet session on Sunday, Netanyahu pledged to retaliate for Abbas's move, which Israel sees as a unilateral step toward statehood and an attempt to gain leverage over it.
Israel had conditioned freedom for the fourth and last group of the 104 prisoners it had pledged to release when the peace talks restarted last July on a Palestinian commitment to extend the negotiations beyond April.
It said the tender to build new houses in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state, had been issued last year and was resubmitted because there had been no initial takers.
Palestinians fear settlements, built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, could deny them a viable state. Most countries consider the settlements illegal. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem and says it intends to keep major settlement blocs in any future peace deal.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Gareth Jones)