Arab ministers back Palestinian decision to stop talks with Israel over settlement issue

Friday, October 8, 2010

Arabs back Palestinian decision to stop talks

SIRTE, Libya — Arab ministers say they support the Palestinians’ decision to stop direct talks with Israel unless the Israelis agree to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank.

But the ministers also said in a statement after meeting on Friday that they’ll give the U.S. another month to find a way to break the impasse.

The decision represents a compromise as the U.S. struggles to prevent a total collapse of direct negotiations between the two sides that began last month.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

SIRTE, Libya (AP) — Moderate Arab nations trying to prevent a breakdown of troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are proposing a return to indirect negotiations as a face-saving device, diplomats said Friday.

The proposal was raised as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab League leaders gathered this weekend in Libya to discuss a deepening crisis over Israel’s refusal to extend a slowdown in settlement construction in the Palestinian territories.

Direct U.S.-backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began last month, following several months of indirect contacts. Abbas has said he cannot keep negotiating with Israel unless it extends a 10-month-old curb on settlement building that expired in late September.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to do so, but U.S. officials have said they hope he will change his mind and agree to a one-time, limited extension.

The Palestinians said Thursday they have accepted a U.S. proposal for a two-month extension, with the idea that final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state be negotiated during that time. While Netanyahu has been sounding out colleagues on the idea, his own position is not yet clear.

Arab foreign ministers held a closed meeting later Friday to discuss the impasse ahead of a meeting of heads of state the next day. They were largely expected to go along with what Abbas proposes.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa lashed out at Israel on Friday, saying its stance was jeopardizing the chances of returning to the negotiating table.

“Conditions are very negative and they do not help efforts to continue the direct negotiations,” Moussa said.

U.S. officials have been frantically trying to salvage the talks, including an offer of a broad package of security and political incentives.

“We’ll obviously need to review the official statement that comes at the conclusion of the weekend before we can really comment on what was said,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington. “Our fundamental goal remains the same and we look to this meeting to support ongoing direct negotiations.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special Mideast envoy George Mitchell called Arab leaders throughout the week. Senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Clinton urged Abbas to continue peace talks in a phone call Thursday but the president insisted the settlements freeze should be extended for the talks to succeed.

Aides to Abbas have said the Palestinian leader wants to avoid the impression that he is quitting talks, and instead hopes to buy more time for U.S. diplomacy. He would emphasize that he remains ready to negotiate and is waiting for Israel to change its mind.

Two diplomats with the Arab League said the proposal for a return to indirect talks was being considered as a way to buy time and save face, while avoiding a formal collapse of the negotiations.

The idea was raised in preliminary discussions by the delegates ahead of Friday’s ministerial meeting. The diplomats described the proposal on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to release the information.

They said Egypt and Jordan — the only two with peace deals with Israel — along with several other moderate Arab countries support the proposal.

Some hard-line Arab states, including Syria, opposed any attempt to go back to the talks.

“I cannot see any benefit from this meeting,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who stayed away from the meeting and sent instead Syria’s envoy to the Arab League.

Lebanon boycotted the discussions altogether because of a dispute with Libya.

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