Palestinians say no peace talks without settlement curbs
Top Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo sets stage for walkout, blaming Israel for obstructing peace negotiations - but Ehud Barak remains hopeful of a last-minute deal.
Israel must halt settlement building on occupied land if peace talks are to resume, a senior Palestine Liberation Official said on Saturday after a meeting of the body's executive committee.
"The leadership confirms that the resumption of talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements," Yasser Abed Rabbo said after a meeting in Ramallah.
"The Palestinian leadership holds Israel responsible for obstructing the negotiations," he added, reading a statement issued after the meeting.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expressed a similar sentiment, saying "there will be no negotiations in the shadow of continued settlement".
U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Friday concluded talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders without agreement on how to keep alive peace negotiations that are on hold due to the dispute over Jewish settlement building.
And despite the apparent impasse, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said late Saturday that he retained hope of a compromise within the coming week to allow the month-old talks to continue.
"We must all wortk with discretion and determination to overcome these difficulties and continue the talks to achieve results," Barak said.
Palestinians say the growth of the settlements, on land Israel has occupied since the Six Day War in 1967, will render impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - the stated goal of the peace talks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is adamant about not extending a 10-month-old moratorium on West Bank housing starts that expired a week ago, despite appeals by the U.S. and the European Union to keep the building curb in place.
Netanyahu said, however, that he is committed to continuing direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu made his remarks before entering talks with Mitchell on Friday.
"We are making efforts together with Senator Mitchell to continue to hold the talks with President Abbas," Netanyahu said. "We want the talks to continue and I want this. We have a mission of peace."
Abbas has said there was no point in negotiating while Israeli settlements keep taking over more of the lands the Palestinians want for a future independent state.
Mitchell spent the past week shuttling between Abbas and Netanyahu and is is now trying to enlist the help of Arab leaders. He was to meet with Qatari leaders on Saturday.
In remarks published Friday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit issued surprising criticism of the Palestinian position of making talks contingent on the settlement building restrictions, saying the sides should concentrate on drawing the borders of a Palestinian state.
In the West Bank, PLO and Fatah officials have overwhelmingly spoken out against continued negotiations.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said the international community's failure to get Israel to halt settlement expansion does not bode well for the talks, where much more explosive issues will be on the table, such as the partition of Jerusalem. U.S. President Barack Obama wants Abbas and Netanyahu to negotiate the terms and borders of a Palestinian state within a year.
Ashrawi said there's a limit to Palestinian flexibility.
Briefing his staff on Friday, Netanyahu voiced frustration with the Palestinian position, noting that Palestinians didn't insist on a settlement freeze during the past 17 years of intermittent negotiations. He said it wasn't easy for him to get his hard-line coalition to back the initial moratorium, and that some construction during the next year is unlikely to affect the negotiations.