Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his ministers to limit all but diplomatic and security contact with their Palestinian counterparts, an official said Wednesday, dealing another blow to faltering peace talks.
The move comes a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry, who kick-started talks in July, blamed Israel for derailing the process by announcing new settlement homes in what he described as a "poof" moment in negotiations.
"In response to the Palestinian violation of their commitments under peace talks... Israel government ministers have been told to refrain from meeting their Palestinian counterparts," the Israeli government official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Palestinian minister of labour Ahmad Majdalani dismissed the significance of Israel's tactic.
"In any case there are no (regular) meetings organised between Palestinian and Israeli ministers, apart from the finance ministers," he told AFP.
"Ninety percent of day-to-day dealings are done with the Israeli military administration" of the occupied West Bank, Majdalani added.
Kerry on Tuesday blamed Israel's approval of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem on April 1 for the latest stalemate in the negotiations, a charge that has left Israeli officials bristling.
While he blamed intransigence on both sides, Kerry told US lawmakers that a delayed Israeli plan to release several Palestinian prisoners as part of a good faith effort was sabotaged by the settlements move.
"In the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment," he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At the end of March, Israel refused to release a final batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners as agreed under the talks, and at the same time reissued tenders for 708 settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians responded to the prisoner issue by applying for membership of 15 international treaties, breaking their own commitment to refrain from such action during the nine months of talks.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have teetered on the brink of collapse, with Washington fighting an uphill battle to get the two sides to agree to a framework proposal to extend the negotiations beyond an April 29 deadline to the year's end.
Kerry's remarks were met with a crisp response from Israel's Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party.
"Israel will never apologise for building in Jerusalem," Bennett said.
"I hear that the (building) programme in Jerusalem was defined as 'poof'. For many years (the Palestinians) tried with explosions and bombs to stop us being in the eternal capital of the Jewish people, it will not happen."
The State Department, perhaps assessing the potential impact Kerry's comments could have in the Middle East, rushed to explain that the secretary of state was fairminded in apportioning blame.
"John Kerry was again crystal clear today that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Twitter.
"He even singled out by name Prime Minister Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout process."
Kerry was also drawn into a heated exchange with Senator John McCain, who declared the peace talks "finished".
While Kerry insisted that Israelis and Palestinians were keen on continuing the process, McCain cut in: "It is stopped," he told Kerry. "Recognise reality."
Meanwhile, the two sides met US envoy Martin Indyk late on Monday and were to see him again on Wednesday, a Palestinian source told AFP.
It was unclear if the latest Israeli decision would affect that meeting.