In First Official Talks Since 2001, PA Blasts Israel for J'lem Construction

New UN envoy calls on both sides to honor road map; Tony Blair to MKs: Israel must proceed in talks despite doubts.

The first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years got off to a rocky start Wednesday, with the Palestinians lambasting Israel for a new construction project planned in disputed East Jerusalem, a Palestinian official said.

The Palestinians have said that newly announced Israeli plans to build more than 300 apartments in the Har Homa neighborhood threatened to undermine the talks. The Palestinians hope to establish the capital of an independent state in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said his delegation introduced the issue of Har Homa and expressed our outrage.

"If you want to restore the credibility of the peace process, the Israeli government must revoke this order," he added.

Wednesday's talks, which lasted for about 90 minutes, went ahead despite calls by some Palestinians for a boycott over the plans for Har Homa. Palestinian leaders decided to attend the talks but to focus on pressing Israel to freeze settlement building.

"We demanded a complete halt to the settlement building ... We have agreed to meet again, nothing else," Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters after the meeting.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there was no "quick fix" to the decades-old conflict and the process will require "ongoing efforts."

"They raised their concerns and we raised our concerns at the meeting," Mark Regev said.

Erekat said the Israelis raised concerns about security issues, including ongoing rocket attacks out of the Gaza Strip.

Erekat said there were no immediate plans to meet again. He said Israeli and Palestinian officials would both attend a conference in Paris next week where donors are expected to pledge aid to the Palestinians.

"After Paris, we will contact each other to see where we take it from there," he said.

The teams, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, had been scheduled to hold a high-profile launch of the talks at the ornate King David hotel, but decided to keep things low key and move things to an undisclosed location.

The meeting was expected to focus on technical issues, such as the priority list for the subjects to be covered in negotiations, and the task forces that will be established.

The Israeli team raised concerns regarding security problems in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Livni said the situation in the south was extremely grave, especially in view of Wednesday's Qassam attack.

She said Israel took a grim view of the involvement of members of the Palestinian defense forces in the attack in the West Bank about a week ago, in which an Israeli citizen was killed.

Both sides agreed at the end of the session to hold further talks at the gathering of the donor states in Paris next week.

UN envoy: Israel-PA must honor road map planThe incoming UN Mideast envoy called Wednesday for Israelis and Palestinians to honor the road map peace plan and criticized Israel's construction project planned in disputed East Jerusalem.

Robert Serry of the Netherlands, who officially takes up his post in January, met Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He told reporters that last month's Mideast conference in Annapolis, Maryland, had given new hope for peace, but work must be done to improve the lives of Palestinians even while the sides are trying to hammer out an agreement.

"It's very important for both parties to really stick to their commitments under the road map," Serry said.

The U.S.-backed plan requires Israel to halt all settlement construction and the Palestinians to halt attacks against Israel as a step toward creation of an independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

Serry quoted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying that if Israel went ahead with its stated aim of building more than 300 new homes in Har Homa, it would be unhelpful and contrary to international law.

Tony Blair to MKs: Israel must proceed in talks despite doubtsThe Quartet's Mideast envoy Tony Blair told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Wednesday that he understands Israel's doubts regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but urged the MKs present to proceed in talks.

Regarding the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Blair said he understood that instead of peace, Israel got a "nightmare," which explains the reluctance to push through another unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank.

However, he maintained that the Palestinians are even more doubtful regarding chances for peace, and called on Israel to make sincere efforts, despite its doubts.

Blair rejected calls for funding first and foremost the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure and economy, saying that there must be simultaneous progress between the diplomatic and economic processes, which he said must be advanced in small steps.

Members of the committee were furious when Blair did not answer MK Limor Livnat's question regarding PA President Mahmoud Abbas' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Rice to attend Quartet and donors meeting in ParisU.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will fly to Paris this weekend for a meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators and a Palestinian donors' conference, the State Department said on Wednesday.

Rice will be in Paris on Sunday and Monday to attend an international conference on supporting Palestinian institution building and reform, steps that are regarded as vital if the Palestinians and Israelis are to make peace.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Rice would attend the Paris donors conference as well as a meeting of the Quartet, which includes Russia, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations.