JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a halt to high-level contacts with the Palestinians on non-security related issues, but exempted his chief peace negotiator from the ban, government officials said on Wednesday.
One Israeli official called Netanyahu's order a response to "the Palestinians' grave violation of their commitments in the framework of the peace talks" -- an apparent reference to their signing of 15 international conventions last week.
The edict came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Israel's announcement on April 1 of plans to build about 700 housing units in East Jerusalem was the immediate cause of peace talks plunging into crisis.
Another official said Israeli cabinet members, directors-general of government ministries and other senior bureaucrats would no longer be allowed to meet their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads Israel's negotiating team in the troubled U.S.-brokered peace process, and defense and security officials could continue to engage with the Palestinians, the officials said.
There was no immediate Palestinian comment on Netanyahu's decision and no clear indication of what would be the practical outcome of the move.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have been cooperating for years on civilian issues such as the environment, water and energy.
At the weekly meeting of his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu pledged to retaliate for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's signing of the international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions covering the conduct of war and occupation.
Palestinian officials said Abbas signed the conventions in response to Israel's failure to carry out a promised release of several dozen Palestinian prisoners four days earlier. They were further angered by the subsequent settlement announcement.
Israel said the tender to build new houses in East Jerusalem had already been issued last year and was resubmitted because there had been no initial takers.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer)