JERUSALEM -- The Middle East peace talks verged on a breakdown Tuesday night, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas defied the United States and Israel by taking concrete steps to join 15 international agencies -- a move to gain the benefits of statehood outside the negotiations process.
The move, which appeared to catch U.S. and Israeli officials by surprise, prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to cancel a planned return to the region today, in which he had expected to complete an agreement extending negotiations through 2015.
In that emerging deal, the United States would release an American convicted of spying for Israel more than 25 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Mr. Abbas, who had vowed not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 expiration of the talks that Mr. Kerry started last summer, said he was taking this course because Israel had failed to release a fourth batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March, as promised.
Israeli officials say they are not bound by their pledge because no meaningful negotiations had taken place since November.
U.S. officials, while rattled, said the Palestinians appeared to be using leverage against Israel rather than trying to scuttle the negotiations. Mr. Abbas, they noted, did not move toward joining the International Criminal Court, a step that Israel fears most because the Palestinians could use the court to contest Israel's presence in the West Bank.
Still, a senior U.S. official said Mr. Kerry's decision not to return to the region immediately reflected a growing impatience in the White House, which believes that his mediating efforts have reached their limit, and that the two sides need to work their way out of the current impasse.
In announcing the moves, Mr. Abbas said, "This is our right." He has been under pressure from other Palestinian leaders and the public to leverage the nonmember observer-state status they won at the United Nations in 2012 to join a total of 63 international bodies.
"We do not want to use this right against anybody or to confront anybody," he said, as he signed the membership applications live on Palestinian television. "We don't want to collide with the U.S. administration. We want a good relationship with Washington because it helped us and exerted huge efforts. But because we did not find ways for a solution, this becomes our right."
The United States voted against the Palestinians' 2012 bid in the U.N. General Assembly, and it blocked a similar effort in 2011 at the Security Council, arguing that negotiations with Israel were the only path to peace and statehood. Washington has also opposed Palestinian membership in the international agencies, which under a law passed by Congress could prompt a withdrawal of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and a shutdown of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.
While the Palestinians' pursuit of the international route is widely viewed as a poison pill for the peace talks, both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Kerry held out hope Tuesday night that they could still be salvaged. The agencies Mr. Abbas moved to join Tuesday included the Geneva and Vienna conventions and those dealing with women's and children's rights.
"It is completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any kind of final judgment, about today's events and where things are," Mr. Kerry told reporters in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO foreign ministers on the Ukraine crisis. "I'm not going to get into the who, why, what, when, where, how or why we're where we are today," he added.
"The important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward," Mr. Kerry said. "Even tonight, both parties say they want to continue to try to find a way forward."
President Barack Obama has given Mr. Kerry broad latitude to try to keep the process alive, even authorizing him to discuss the possible release of former Navy intelligence officer Jonathan Pollard, now serving a life sentence in the United States for espionage, whose release Israel has long sought. That would only be as part of a broader package of measures that U.S. officials said would give the negotiations a genuine chance to succeed. Such a move would antagonize the nation's intelligence agencies, senior officials said, but might be worth the cost to keep the talks from collapsing altogether. Pollard is eligible for parole in 2015, they noted, so his value as a bargaining chip is diminishing.
Mr. Obama, officials said, has been in frequent contact with Mr. Kerry when both were in Europe last week, and during Mr. Kerry's travels there this week. The president has rejected previous pleas by the Israelis to release Pollard, but with Mr. Kerry having invested so deeply in the peace process, officials said, Mr. Obama wanted to back him up.
Whether, and how, to use Pollard has been vigorously debated within the administration. While some officials argue that he should only be used to break the logjam on final-status issues -- the borders of a new Palestinian state, for example -- Mr. Kerry has argued that these issues will all be decided as a package at the end of the talks. Given the dwindling term of his prison sentence, Mr. Kerry has argued, Pollard could be more useful now in keeping the talks alive, according to officials.
Still, it is the most significant crisis yet for talks that have been fraught from the start, with few beyond Mr. Kerry and his team believing there was much chance of closing the gaps in the two sides' positions. Mr. Kerry has made the peace process a personal mission, with a dozen trips to the region in the past year, including two over the last week, interrupting his efforts to counter Russia's aggression toward Ukraine.
While Middle East analysts widely praised Mr. Kerry's determination, many thought he was on a fool's errand. He long ago abandoned his original goal of achieving a final-status agreement within nine months, and in recent weeks he had even de-emphasized his proposed framework of core principles for a deal, focusing instead simply on extending the timetable.
Israeli officials remained mum about Mr. Abbas' move Tuesday night. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to discuss it, or how it might affect the deal that had emerged earlier in the day to continue the talks for at least another nine months.
The move by Mr. Abbas came after a frenzied day of rumors in Israel, where officials said a deal was emerging in which Pollard would be freed before the Passover holiday, which starts at sundown April 14. Israel would free the remaining long-serving prisoners -- including 14 Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose release is particularly delicate because it raises questions of sovereignty -- as well as 400 others, many of them women and children, who had not committed murder.
In addition, Israel would promise to "show restraint" in settlement construction, the official said, by not starting new government housing projects in the West Bank. Projects underway would be allowed to continue, the official said, and east Jerusalem would not be included.
Instead, Mr. Abbas made a show of signing the documents on live television, saying Palestine would become a member of most of the 15 bodies "as soon as we apply," and that he would join the rest of the 63 international agencies "if Israel does not release the prisoners."
Tuesday night in Brussels, Mr. Kerry invoked a long-standing axiom of the peace process -- that the mediator cannot want it to work more than the parties themselves. "The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate," he said. "But facilitation is only as good as the willingness of leaders to actually make decisions when they're put in front of them."