Senior Palestinian politicians back Abbas in linking peace talks to Israeli settlement curbs

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Palestinians say no talks without settlement curbs

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Senior Palestinian politicians on Saturday backed President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand to link peace talks to restrictions on Israeli settlement building, delivering a new setback to bogged down U.S. efforts to salvage the negotiations.

The announcement came after a three-hour meeting Saturday of dozens of leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas’ Fatah movement.

“The Palestinian position is clear,” said senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh. “There will be no negotiations as long as settlement building continues.”

However, this may not be the last word from the Palestinians. A final decision is only expected at an Arab League summit in Libya next weekend. This gives U.S. envoy George Mitchell a few more days to try to broker a compromise. Earlier this week, he shuttled between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for four days, but made no apparent progress.

Israeli government officials had no immediate comment Saturday.

Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah leader, said the Palestinians will now begin to prepare for the potential collapse of the talks. PLO and Fatah officials formed a joint committee to discuss the possibility of asking the U.N. Security Council to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

The committee will also discuss ways of reconciling with the Islamic militant Hamas, Abbas’ main rival, Dahlan said. Hamas wrested the Gaza Strip from Abbas in a 2007 takeover and has repeatedly urged him to quit negotiations. Hamas considers such talks pointless.

As Abbas heads into a fateful week of diplomacy, the backing from the PLO and Fatah is bound to strengthen his hand.

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. Abbas says there’s no point in negotiating while Israeli settlements keep taking over more of the lands the Palestinians want for a future independent state.

Mitchell, meanwhile, is moving to enlist the help of Arab leaders, and met with Qatari leaders on Saturday. He then traveled to Cairo for talks with senior Egyptian officials, including Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

In remarks published Friday, 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. 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.

“The whole world is demanding that he (Netanyahu) stop settlements, and he is telling the world that Israel is above the law,” she said. “If things continue like this, if before beginning final status negotiations the U.S. says it is unable to pressure Israel, and if the world is looking on, and no one is able to tell Israel to stop settlements, then what is the benefit of negotiations?”

The international community maintains that the settlements on lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, now home to half a million Israelis, violate international law.

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.

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