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Palestinians: Peace talks hinge on Israeli settlement construction

By Joel Greenberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 6:00 AM

JERUSALEM - The Palestinian leadership said on Saturday that there would be no resumption of peace talks without a halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, backing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a dispute that has imperiled recently renewed negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded by appealing to Abbas to continue the negotiations. "The way to achieve an historic peace agreement between our two peoples is to sit around the negotiating table, seriously and continuously, and not to leave it, because that is the place to resolve our disagreements,'' he said in a statement.

Abbas met at his headquarters in Ramallah with members of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the central committee of his Fatah movement ahead of consultations at an Arab League summit in Libya next weekend.

"The leadership affirmed that the resumption of negotiations requires tangible steps that demonstrate their seriousness, first and foremost halting settlement without qualifications or exceptions," said a statement read out by Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official.

"The Palestinian leadership holds the Israeli government responsible for the suspension of the negotiations and the political process," the statement said, accusing Israel of seeking "to use the negotiations as a cover to pursue this settlement policy."

The U.S.-sponsored talks, renewed in early September, have foundered after a 10-month moratorium on new construction in Israeli settlements expired last Sunday and Netanyahu said it would not be renewed, despite pressure from Washington.

The U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George J. Mitchell, failed to break the impasse on Friday after two days of shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. On Saturday he traveled to Qatar and Egypt to enlist the help of Arab leaders to broker a compromise.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said that the Palestinian president would address Arab foreign ministers and leaders at the Arab League meeting, seek their advice "and then we'll come back to the Palestinian leadership in order to take the right decision." The Arab League had sanctioned the direct talks with the Israelis.

"The Palestinian position is clear: There will be no negotiations as long as settlement building continues," Abu Rudeineh said, adding that if the Israelis "are not restraining such activities, how are we going to agree on the final status issues?"

Palestinian officials assert that by expanding settlements, Israel is seizing land the Palestinians want for a future state before its fate is decided in negotiations. Netanyahu has argued that limited building in the settlements during the year allotted to reach an agreement would not affect the final drawing of borders, and that halting settlement construction was never a precondition for previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"For 17 years the Palestinians conducted direct talks with Israeli governments while building went on in Judea and Samaria," Netanyahu said in response to the Palestinian statement, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names. "I hope that now, as well, they will not turn their backs on peace and continue the negotiations in order to reach a framework agreement within a year."

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said that there was a firm consensus among all factions at the Ramallah meeting that talks could not proceed as long as Israeli settlement building continued.

"How can you have a two-state solution if you are eating up the land of the other state?" Ashrawi said. "The Israelis have to understand once and for all that they just can't continue with this approach. . . .We can't afford it anymore. The two-state solution is disappearing."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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