Peace talks stall over Israel's West Bank settlement policy

JERUSALEM —The month-old U.S.-led peace process fell further into jeopardy Saturday, as senior Israeli and Palestinian leadership maintained their steadfast and opposite positions on Israel’s West Bank settlement construction.

Dozens of senior Palestinian leaders announced Saturday that they would support President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to take part in peace talks, as long as Israel continued to expand its settlements.

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained his equally staunch position, announcing that he would not freeze construction of the settlements. Netanyahu reacted by urging Abbas "to continue the peace talks without a break with the aim of reaching a historic accord in a year," a statement from his office said.

"For 17 years the Palestinians negotiated while construction continued" in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, he added, expressing hope "that they will not now turn their backs on peace."

The White House did not issue a formal statement.

An administration adviser familiar with the discussions said the latest posture from Palestians reflects how vulnerable the peace talks are but also buys more time for Israeli and the Palestinian officials to talk - at least through an Arab League meeting set for next Friday. "It's a clear indication of what folks on the Palestinian side feel, but it's not a decision," said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the administration. At the same time, he conceded the talks are Lnot in a good place."

He said U.S. officials have been urging both sides to find a way to keep the talks alive - and will continue to do so — but he offered no specifics about how.

While Palestinians have taken part in peace talks while settlement construction continued under previous governments, the issue has become a key stumbling block to negotiations in recent years.

Palestinians argue that there is no point in negotiating as long as settlements continue to be built on land Palestinians see as earmarked for their future state. They also point out that Israel agreed to end settlement expansion in 2003, as part of the road map for peace. Netanyahu has stated that talks should exist without any preconditions, and that the future of the settlements should be discussed in negotiations.

Netanyahu also leads a largely right-wing coalition, one which has threatened to disband if he announces any further limitations on the settlement expansion. Israelis papers widely reported this weekend that Netanyahu had offered to impose a partial freeze on some of the settlements, but that both hard-line elements in his coalition and Palestinians officials had dismissed the compromise.

A 10-month freeze on all new construction expired one week ago, throwing the peace process into crisis only three weeks after it was launched on the White House lawn.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell was dispatched to the region to try and mediate a compromise, but on Friday he left for Cairo to hold discussions with the Arab League without announcing any breakthrough with the Israeli or Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians final decision on their participation in the peace talks will be made at a summit of the Arab League in roughly one week.

While Mitchell met with a number of Arab leaders, Syrian President Bashar al Assad met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and dismissed the peace talks.

"The talks are only aimed at supporting Obama's position inside the U.S," Assad said in his first public comments about the negotiations since they were launched in Washington. Both Assad and Ahmadinejad pledged to continue supporting “resistance” in the region.

In Washington, the White House has no immediate reaction.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent in Jerusalem. Margaret Talev contributed from Washington.)


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