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Jerusalem - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas defied American diplomats Tuesday by unilaterally signing more than a dozen United Nations treaties, endangering the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
With the stroke of a pen, a pall of confusion descended as diplomats could not answer basic questions about how and when the negotiations will continue. Efforts to forge a final and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a centerpiece of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
Secretary of State John Kerry scrapped plans to visit Abbas today for what he had hoped would be a last push for a breakthrough after eight months of talks. He played down the severity of the breach and stressed that Abbas has said he intends to continue talking.
"It is completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any final judgment, about today's events and where things are," Kerry told reporters in Brussels, where he was attending a NATO meeting.
Kerry's cancellation of his visit followed Abbas's announcement Tuesday evening that he would sign the paperwork to allow the Palestinians to become a party to 15 U.N. treaties and protocols about the rights of women, children, those with disabilities and civilians in wartime.
The signing occurred as U.S. and Israeli negotiators were working on a broad outline for a bold plan to extend the talks, which would require Israel to slow settlement construction in the West Bank and release hundreds of additional Palestinian prisoners.
The late-afternoon developments followed a report earlier in the day that the United States was considering the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who in 1987 was convicted of spying for Israel, as part of a broader deal that would keep the peace talks underway at least through 2015.
The Palestinians would, in turn, agree not to pursue recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state or other redress through the United Nations to keep alive hopes for a negotiated solution.
The Palestinians won "non-member observer state" status at the United Nations in 2012. Full membership was blocked in 2011.
Israel and the United States consider the United Nations an unsympathetic forum for Israel, but one that will not help the Palestinians achieve an independent state beside Israel, which occupies the West Bank and enforces a partial naval and land blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for Abbas, said the Palestinians had agreed in July not to join U.N. organizations or sign U.N. treaties in exchange for Israel's promise to release 104 Palestinian prisoners. Because the last group of 26 was not released as scheduled over the weekend, Abu Eid said, the Palestinians felt free to sign the documents.
"We are not doing this against America, but we still don't see other ways forward," Abbas said in a speech to fellow membes of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "We don't see any reason not to go and sign these agreements, with the knowledge that we are on the path to reaching an agreement through talks and through peaceful popular resistance."
It was clear that Abbas's move blindsided the United States, which was trying to broker a new deal for prisoner releases sought by the Palestinians and an extension of the peace talks. Kerry had detoured from stops in Europe - to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and support for NATO - to meet with Netanyahu and Palestinian negotiators.
It was not clear what the Obama administration would do next.
"This is a moment to be really clear-eyed and sober about this process," Kerry said. "It is difficult. It is emotional. It requires huge decisions, some of them with great political difficulty, all of which need to come together simultaneously."
Asked directly about whether the United States would release Pollard early, Kerry said there is no agreement on any prisoner, including those at issue in the release that was supposed to occur this past Saturday. Pollard has been in prison since 1985; he is eligible for parole in 2015.
Pollard's early release would be a prize for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the White House had been gambling that it would provide President Barack Obama with additional leverage in the U.S.-led effort to create an independent Palestinian state.
The Obama administration, like Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has publicly resisted strong Israeli lobbying to lighten Pollard's sentence for spying for a friendly country. But Pollard's fate was always presumed to be a potential element of any U.S.-backed solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry threw responsibility for peace, and negotiations, back on Abbas and Netanyahu. The United States stands ready to help, Kerry said. "The leaders on both sides have to make the decisions, not us. It's up to them to decide what they are going to do with each other, for each other, for the future, for the region, for peace."
The Palestinians, though, were in a combative mood. They were upset by an announcement publicized Tuesday that the Israel Land Authority is tendering an offer to sell to developers the rights to build 708 housing units in the Jerusalem area community of Gilo, which sits on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war and later annexed by the Jerusalem municipality.
To the Palestinians, Gilo is a Jewish settlement built on occupied land in East Jerusalem and, therefore, illegal by international law. Israel disputes this.
The timing of the housing tenders, as news was breaking of a possible deal to keep the peace talks from collapsing, raised ire among the Palestinians and suspicion among watchdog groups in Israel.
"It looks like a provocation by the housing minister," said Hagit Ofran, director of Settlement Watch, an Israeli group that monitors building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. "It looks like it was done to make John Kerry's job more difficult."