Palestinians say no talks until full settlement halt

Palestinians say no talks until full settlement halt

Palestinian leaders on Monday categorically ruled out holding any peace talks with Israel until a full and lasting freeze in Jewish settlement, Reuters reported.

The remarks by President Mahmoud Abbas and one of his senior allies in his Fatah party may aim to step up pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama, who is pushing for negotiations to start in the face of Israeli opposition to a total halt to settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In what looked like an acknowledgment by the United States of problems in persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning Israeli coalition to stop settlement completely, a U.S. official said last week that Washington would not insist on a total freeze if the Palestinians would accept something less.

Abbas and Nabil Shaath, former foreign minister and a Fatah Central Committee member, made clear on Monday they would not.

Asked whether he might meet Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly around September 23, Abbas told Al Jazeera: "If there is no freeze of settlement activity, and if there is no clear position from Israel on this issue, such a thing would not take place."

Shaath told foreign media in Ramallah that if Obama should ask Fatah to start negotiations after only a partial, temporary settlement freeze: "I would say, Mr. Obama, we love you...but I am sorry this is not enough to bring us to the peace process."

He said Palestinians had met their commitments under the 2003, U.S.-backed "road map" to peace, including curbing violence against Israel, but that Israel had failed to meet its by extending its colonization of territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it seized in the Middle East war of 1967.

"A total settlement freeze and a commitment to an independent Palestinian state will bring us back to the negotiating table immediately," Shaath said.

He ruled out accepting exemptions to the freeze, including exceptions for building in East Jerusalem or expanding existing settlements to cope with "natural growth" of families there.

While Netanyahu and Obama's envoy George Mitchell are, say diplomats, discussing a freeze limited in time, to say six months or a year, Shaath said the only time limit Palestinians would accept was a freeze lasting until a final peace is signed.

He also dismissed Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, describing that as a new demand intended to hinder talks and to pre-judge negotiations on whether Palestinian refugees could return to homes in Israel.

Analysts question, however, whether Abbas could refuse for long to take part in talks with Netanyahu if Obama insisted.

Netanyahu, whose five-month-old coalition includes a strong pro-settler wing, has made clear Israel does not want to freeze settlement in the way the Palestinians are demanding.

Though he accepted, following U.S. pressure, that a Palestinian state was a goal of the peace process, he questions whether Abbas, who has lost control of Gaza to Hamas, can give Israel security.

The European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on a visit to Jerusalem on Monday that he believed U.S.-Israel negotiations could produce a deal in time to allow for a start to Israeli-Palestinian talks at the United Nations on September 23.

Shaath said the schism between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank was an obstacle to a peace settlement with Israel and said Fatah hoped for a breakthrough in an Egyptian-mediated process that is due to resume in Cairo in late September.

The two sides were at odds, he said, over Hamas's refusal to back a unity government that accepts interim peace accords with Israel and differences over cooperating on internal security.

If a reconciliation deal could be struck, Shaath said, Abbas would schedule elections, due for both the presidency and parliament, on January 24. Without a deal, however, there could be no elections, he said, since holding a vote only in the West Bank would entrench the schism with the Gaza Strip.

Shaath said members of the Fatah Central Committee could visit Gaza in the coming weeks. He said Abbas had made a gesture toward Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in recent days by offering condolences on the death of his father. Shaath also praised Hamas for "doing its best" to halt rocket fire into Israel.

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