Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met their US counterparts overnight Thursday to discuss ways to prevent the complete collapse of peace talks after both sides took steps Washington criticised as "unhelpful."
More than a year of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry was in jeopardy after Israel made a new bid to expand settlements in annexed Arab east Jerusalem and the Palestinians took fresh steps toward seeking recognition of their promised state.
White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest expressed disappointment at "unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days," but said Washington still believed diplomacy had a chance.
Ahead of the three-way talks, Kerry telephoned both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to discuss the situation, a US official said.
There was no official word on the outcome of the meeting, which took place in Jerusalem and reportedly brought together US special envoy Martin Indyk with Israel's chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erakat.
A source close to the talks quoted by the Walla news website said the chances of success were "slim, but we'll keep trying."
The standoff was triggered by Israel's refusal to release 26 Palestinian prisoners at the weekend, prompting the Palestinians to formally request accession to several international treaties in a bid to unilaterally further their statehood claim.
Each side accused the other of violating undertakings given when the current round of peace talks were launched last July under Kerry's sponsorship.
And the moves dealt a hammer blow to Kerry's frenetic efforts to broker an extension of the negotiations beyond their original April 29 deadline.
- 'A diplomatic intifada' -
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Despite the treaty move, a senior Palestinian official insisted that Abbas remained committed to the US peace efforts.
"The Palestinian leadership... wants the political process to continue. But we want a real political process, without tricks," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee.
And Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, after presenting the request on the treaties, said "this action does not detract from the importance of negotiations. We are still committed to these talks."
UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry confirmed receiving the Palestinian requests, and a spokesman for the secretary general said they would be reviewing them to consider the "appropriate next steps."
The treaties include the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, the convention on the rights of the child, the convention against torture and one against corruption.
The Palestinian Authority has also asked Switzerland if it can join the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention and the first additional protocol. And it has asked the Netherlands if it can join the Hague Convention of 1907 on laws and customs governing war.
Abbas said the first of the treaties he applied to accede to was the Fourth Geneva Convention, which holds huge symbolic importance for the Palestinians as it provides the legal basis of their rejection of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
The Palestinian envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said the requests were "legal" and just a first wave, with more possible depending on Israel's behaviour.
In Israel, there was surprise and anger over the Palestinian move.
"The Palestinians have returned to a diplomatic intifada," one Israeli political official told Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Thursday, using the Arabic word for uprising.
In November 2012, the Palestinians won the status of an observer state in the United Nations, which allows them access to a number of conventions and international organisations.
But as part of a reciprocal arrangement that facilitated the resumption of peace talks last year, they pledged to freeze all moves to seek membership in UN organisations in return for Israel's release of the veteran Palestinian prisoners.