Settlement issue blocking Mideast talks: Palestinians

Israel`s insistence on building settlements has blocked EU and US efforts to salvage peace talks.

Updated: Oct 01, 2010, 21:50 PM IST

Ramallah: Israel`s insistence on building settlements has blocked EU and US efforts to salvage peace talks, a top Palestinian official told AFP Friday after days of intensive negotiations.

"The American efforts are ongoing but there has been no breakthrough so far because Israel is pursuing settlement activities," a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said.

"President Abbas made it clear to Senator (George) Mitchell that no negotiations will take place as long as the settlement activities are ongoing," Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP after Abbas`s second meeting with the US envoy in 24 hours.

International efforts to salvage the peace process shifted into high gear on Friday, with Mitchell and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in a bid to broker a compromise that would secure the future of direct peace talks launched only four weeks ago.

Speaking in Jerusalem at the end of a 24-hour visit, Ashton urged Israel to reimpose a ban on building new settler homes in the occupied West Bank to give the talks a chance.

But Mitchell, who was also due to leave the region on Friday after four days, insisted that both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted that continuing to talk was the only way forward.

Peace negotiations began just four weeks ago, but Israel`s decision not to extend a ban on building new Jewish homes in the West Bank -- which expired on Sunday -- has taken the process to crisis point.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior leader with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), told AFP in the West Bank city of Ramallah that Israel`s insistence on building more settler homes on land the Palestinians want for a future state was tantamount to a rejection of the peace talks.

"Our position has not changed. We consider that Israel`s insistence on pursuing settlement activities amounts to a rejection of the negotiations and we hold them responsible for that," he said.

Senior officials in both Washington and Brussels have made clear that they want Israel to extend the moratorium on settlement building. Its expiry prompted Palestinian threats to quit the talks.

"I have urged Israel to continue the moratorium and to allow the talks more time to make great progress," Ashton said after 24 hours of meetings with Mitchell, Netanyahu, Abbas and Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad.

"Those of us that have been engaged in the process have been very concerned that the ending of the moratorium should not put at risk the possibility of long-term peace," she said, decribing her talks as "positive and contructive."

Despite his continuing refusal to continue the moratorium on settlement building, Netanyahu earlier reiterated his desire to continue peace talks with the Palestinians.

"We want the talks to continue and I want that. We have a mission of peace," he said in a statement.

After meeting Netanyahu in the morning and Abbas in the afternoon, Mitchell insisted that both men were committed to continuing the talks.

"President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted that negotiation is the road to a comprensive peace in the region," Mitchell told reporters in Ramallah after his second meeting with Abbas in as many days.

"Both the president and the prime minister have agreed that we will continue our discussions in an effort to move forward in this process."

Despite his continuing refusal to continue the moratorium on settlement building, Netanyahu earlier reiterated his desire to continue peace talks with the Palestinians.

"We want the talks to continue and I want that. We have a mission of peace," he said in a statement.

The moratorium expired on Sunday, but Abbas has said he will reserve a final decision on whether to withdraw from the talks until after he confers with Arab foreign ministers on the sidelines of a summit in the Libyan city of Sirte towards the end of next week.

He was also expected to put the proposals to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and to the central committee of his Fatah party at a meeting on Saturday.

Bureau Report