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Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signed ‘State of Palestine’ applications for 15 United Nations agencies.

Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press

U.S. officials scrambled Wednesday night to put the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track, a day after tactics by both sides derailed the process.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas surprised both Israelis and Americans late Tuesday by signing letters of accession to 15 multilateral treaties and conventions, including the Geneva Conventions on the laws of conflict. Such accession is a right Palestine gained by its being upgraded to an observer state by the UN General Assembly in 2012, but the Palestinians had agreed to put it off during the peace process

Though denounced by Israeli officials and criticized even by the White House, the Palestinian leadership defended its action as a legitimate response to Israel breaking a promise to release some 26 Palestinian prisoners by March 29.

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With a few bold strokes of his pen, the bespectacled Mr. Abbas, an advocate of non-violence, seized the diplomatic upper hand and had Israel worried.

The 15 international conventions the Palestinians are seeking to join is just a first group, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, said Wednesday. Depending on Israel's actions, more applications could follow, including seeking to join the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinians made it clear in their statement Wednesday that they want the peace process to proceed and have pledged to continue negotiating until the current round runs its course on April 29. Whether they have anyone with whom to negotiate is another matter, as the flabbergasted Israelis had yet to agree to return to the table as of late Wednesday.

The Palestinian Authority "took the difficult decision to postpone accession to multilateral treaties and conventions in exchange for the release of 104 pre-Oslo prisoners in four stages," the Palestine Liberation Organization said in a statement Wednesday, referring to Palestinians who have been in Israeli prisons since before the Oslo Accord of 1993. The March 29 group was to be the final stage of these releases.

When that day came and went, the Palestinians gave Israel a 24-hour ultimatum: either release the prisoners or Palestine would press ahead with its efforts for full sovereign recognition.

Israel did not appear to take the threat seriously and said it would not release any more prisoners until the Palestinians agreed to extend the peace talks beyond the end of April.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose indefatigable efforts had made the peace talks possible last July, had apparently suggested to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that another larger prisoner release might persuade Mr. Abbas to continue talks. But that might not be approved by Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition cabinet.

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To make approval easier, Mr. Kerry appears to have raised the possibility of Washington releasing Jonathan Pollard, an American naval intelligence analyst who has served more than 28 years of a life sentence for divulging classified secrets to Israel.

Mr. Pollard's release has long been sought by Israeli leaderswho have admitted to his spying mission and who accorded him Israeli citizenship a decade after his arrest. But though some Israelis would have welcomed the release, the freedom of Mr. Pollard meant little to the Palestinian leadership, other than another example of Israel being rewarded for what Palestinians view as intransigence.

By Tuesday, the Palestinian leadership had lost all patience and the PLO governing council voted unanimously to empower Mr. Abbas to seek further international recognition.

Even leaders of Hamas, the rival Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip, applauded the Abbas action.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel had done "all it could to try and reach a settlement with the Palestinians, and now the ball is in their court."

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau warned the Palestinians "will pay a heavy price," for their action, suggesting Israel might respond by annexing parts of the West Bank.

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"One of the possible measures will be Israel applying sovereignty over areas which will clearly be part of the State of Israel in any future solution," he told Israel Radio.

Supporters of Israel in the U.S. congress threatened to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority unless it desisted from its international efforts.

Republican Kay Granger, who chairs a House subcommittee on foreign appropriations, said the Obama administration "must send a clear message to the Palestinians that the only path to statehood is through a negotiated agreement with Israel, not through unilateral attempts at the UN."

A spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama attempted to spread the blame. "We are disappointed by the unhelpful, unilateral actions that both parties have taken in recent days," Josh Earnest said.

U.S. officials privately expressed anger Tuesday when Israel reissued tenders for 708 homes in Gilo, a suburban Jerusalem neighbourhood being built on land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.

With a report from Associated Press

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