The Palestinians dug in ahead of a crucial meeting Thursday with Washington's Mideast envoy, saying they can't be expected to continue peace talks unless Israel reverses a decision to lift restrictions on West Bank settlement construction.
Neither side seems to want the month-old talks to collapse, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are publicly at an impasse, with a Monday deadline looming.
President Barack Obama's emissary, George Mitchell, is making a secretive last-minute attempt to rescue the negotiations. He was to travel to Abbas' West Bank headquarters Thursday, after meeting with Israeli leaders on Wednesday. Mitchell said after talks with Netanyahu that he is undaunted by what he described as bumps in the road, but offered no glimpse of a possible compromise.
The European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, announced she's heading to the region "as a matter of priority" after talking to Mitchell and international Mideast envoy Tony Blair.
Starting Thursday, the EU foreign policy chief will meet with Netanyahu, Abbas and Mitchell over two days to try to prevent the collapse of negotiations. She reiterated in a statement that the European Union regrets Israel's decision not to extend a 10-month-old moratorium on West Bank housing starts that expired this week.
Netanyahu has said extending the construction curb could fracture his pro-settlement governing coalition, but has also said he wants to keep negotiating with Abbas. Obama wants a deal on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel within a year.
Abbas advisers on Wednesday stopped short of posing an ultimatum, but signaled they would accept nothing less than an extension of the moratorium. Veteran Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said Israel should be blamed for any breakdown of the negotiations if it insists on expanding settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians for their state.
Abbas on Wednesday was quoted as saying, without elaborating, that he is ready to make a "historic decision" when Arab League foreign ministers meet Monday in Cairo to review the negotiations. It wasn't clear whether Abbas meant he was ready to quit the talks or whether he was simply trying to create some last-minute leverage.
On Saturday, Abbas will consult top officials from his Fatah Party and the Palestine Liberation Organization's decision-making body before sitting down with the Arab officials.
Hanna Amireh, a member of the PLO body, said there was widespread opposition to resuming talks without a settlement curb.
"The consensus is that since the entire world is in favor of a Palestinian state and against settlements, then let us throw this problem in the face of the world and see what they can do about it," Amireh said.
However, in the end the decision is up to Abbas. Fatah and the PLO have routinely backed his decisions in the past and are unlikely to rebel against him now. The Arab League is also expected to back Abbas' recommendations.
Should he stay in the talks without a moratorium, Abbas would lose more credibility among Palestinians already skeptical of Washington's ability to deliver a deal. Yet Abbas may be reluctant to walk away from talks because his international standing and future as a leader are tied to the quest for a peace deal.
Abbas' bitter Hamas rivals, who seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, would benefit from the talks' failure as a reflection of their position that nothing can be gained by negotiating with Israel.
In comments published Wednesday on the website of the pro-Hamas newspaper Felesteen, Hamas' Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar renewed his call to Abbas to quit the negotiations.
Commenting on the Palestinian uprising that followed the failed U.S.-led peace effort at Camp David in 2000, Zahar claimed the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat instructed Hamas to carry out "a number of military operations in the heart of the Hebrew state" after he allegedly "felt the failure of his negotiating" with Israel.
At the time, Arafat had said he sought to restrain Palestinian attacks so peace talks could succeed.
Zahar and other Hamas spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.
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