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US reviews gains in Mideast as tit-for-tat moves multiply

JERUSALEM -- Washington said Friday it was reviewing its push for a Middle East peace agreement as a spiral of tit-for tat moves by Israel and the Palestinians brought hard-won talks close to collapse.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has invested more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy in the talks process, said there were “limits” to the time Washington could devote to it.

“This is not open-ended,” Kerry said on a visit to Morocco, adding that it was “reality check” time and he would evaluate with U.S. President Barack Obama what Washington does next.

“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps,” he said.

The U.S. top diplomat spoke to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Thursday in a desperate bid to bring the two sides back from the brink.

But Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas rejected his appeals to withdraw the applications he signed on Tuesday to adhere to 15 international treaties, a Palestinian official told AFP.

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored appeals to refrain from “unhelpful” tit-for-tat moves and asked officials to draw up a range of tough reprisals, Israeli media reported.

Kerry said Washington currently had an “enormous amount on the plate,” highlighting negotiations with the Russians over Ukraine, negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program and the conflict in Syria, as other U.S. priorities.

“Both parties say they want to continue, neither party has said they want to call it off; but we're not going to sit there indefinitely, this is not an open-ended effort,” he said.

Israel says Tuesday's move by Abbas was a clear breach of the undertakings the Palestinians gave when the talks were relaunched last July to pursue no other avenues for recognition of their promised state.

The Palestinians say Israel had already reneged on its own commitments when it failed to release a fourth and final batch of veteran Arab prisoners as scheduled at the weekend, and that the treaty move was their response.

On Thursday, Kerry spoke to both Netanyahu and Abbas from North Africa to appeal to them to reconsider.

But Abbas dismissed his warnings about the consequences of pressing ahead with the treaty applications, a Palestinian official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Kerry warned that “Israel was threatening a strong response to Palestinian actions,” the official said.

But Abbas retorted: “Israel's threats scare no one. They can do what they like,” the official added.

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