Arab League backs Palestinian refusal on talks unless Israel halts West Bank settlements

By Joel Greenberg
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 1:19 PM

JERUSALEM - Arab League foreign ministers on Friday backed the Palestinians' refusal to resume peace talks with Israel unless it halts new building in West Bank settlements. But they delayed for a month any further action, allowing time for diplomatic efforts to get the negotiations back on track.

The ministers of the 22-nation league were meeting in Libya and made their endorsement after consulting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We support the Palestinian president's position calling for a complete halt of all settlement activities in order to resume negotiations," said Ahmad Bin Helli, the league's deputy secretary-general, in the city of Sirte.

The ministers also "held Israel responsible for the halting of negotiations because of the continuation of the settlement activities," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera.

The Arab ministers said they would meet again in a month to study alternatives and decide on the next steps, giving the Obama administration more time to broker a compromise on renewal of the talks.

There was no immediate response in Israel.

The peace talks were launched in early September and broke off late in the month after the expiration of an Israeli moratorium on new building in settlements in the West Bank. Abbas, backed by the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has insisted that talks cannot resume unless Israel renews the moratorium. But Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has resisted pressure from Washington to extend the freeze.

Netanyahu heads a right-leaning coalition that includes several parties favoring the settlements, and he has been reluctant to put that coalition in jeopardy by extending the moratorium. In recent days, he has weighed an offer from Washington of security assurances and military hardware in exchange for a two-month extension of the freeze.

Erekat rejected such an extension Friday, saying, "The key to the direct negotiations is halting settlement activity completely."

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said the Arab foreign ministers would meet again in the coming weeks to consider other diplomatic options suggested by Abbas.

Erekat told al-Jazeera that the options included calling on the Obama administration to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and asking the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution calling on member states to recognize a Palestinian state.

"We are leaving the door open to the American administration to continue its work with us and our Arab brothers and the Quartet to compel Israel to halt settlement," Erekat said. The so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators includes the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

Joel Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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