erekat - Dan Keinan - Dec 29 2008
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a file photo. Photo by Dan Keinan
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The Palestinians will give the United States several more weeks to try to relaunch direct peace talks with Israel, but will not buckle on their key demand for a halt to Israeli settlement activity, a top Palestinian official said on Thursday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that an Arab League decision on Oct. 9 giving the United States one month to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop settlements could slip - but that the core demand would remain unchanged.

"They're saying that efforts may need two or three more weeks," Erekat told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell in Washington.

"If the Americans needed two more weeks they can have the two more weeks," Erekat said. "We're waiting to hear from the Americans and there is no reason to convene the Arab follow-up committee until we hear what the Americans have to offer."

"They key is in Netanyahu's hands," Erekat said. "The choice is his: settlements or peace. He cannot have both."

Erekat declined to say whether he believed the additional time would be enough to persuade Netanyahu to stop the settlements, which have threatened to torpedo the direct talks that were launched under U.S. auspices in September.

Netanyahu is due to visit the United States next week and meet with both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said on Thursday she was working non-stop to try to find a way out of the impasse.

"I am very involved in finding a way forward and I think we will be able to do so," Clinton told reporters in New Zealand, where she is on an official visit.

Direct talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began on Sept. 2 in Washington but broke down several weeks later when a 10-month partial Israeli freeze on settlement building in the West Bank expired.

Netanyahu has resisted U.S., Palestinian and international calls to impose a new building moratorium on settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian officials have accused Netanyahu of destroying prospects for peace by allowing settlement building to continue on land that Palestinians want for a future state.

Erekat said Palestinians remained focused on the direct talks as a way of achieving a two-state solution which U.S. President Barack Obama hopes will see an independent Palestine living peacefully beside Israel within one year.

But he said the Palestinian leadership was also considering other options, including seeking both U.S. and United Nations Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state.

"I hope that the United States of America, when we go to the Security Council to seek a full membership for the State of Palestine, will not oppose us," Erekat said.

Erekat did not give a timeline for this possible move, which the U.S. State Department said on Thursday could be an unwelcome complication.

"We have made clear all along that unilateral steps, either by the Israelis or by the Palestinians, undermine the direct negotiation which is the only way to resolve the core issues, reach an agreement and end the conflict," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Erekat said other suggested resolutions to the impasse, including suggestions that the Palestinians should insist on a "one state solution" where the Arab majority with Israel demands equal rights, were unrealistic at least for now.

"Those who continue with the settlement activities may end up with the one state solution, whether they like it or not. But that's not my option," he said.