Abbas: No need for talks if settlements do not stop

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas strongly criticized on Monday an Israeli decision to seize more Palestinian land in the West Bank for settlement expansion, dpa reported.

He said that "unless settlements are brought to a halt, then talks (with Israel) will be meaningless and useless."

Abbas also stressed that the next Israeli government has to accept the two-state solution and other international agreements on the Middle East conflict as a prelude to resuming negotiations.

"We cannot start from point zero once again," stressed Abbas during a press conference with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Israeli Ha'aretz daily reported Monday that Israeli plans to seize 1.7 million square metres of Palestinian land near Bethlehem to expand the settlement of Efrat, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the area.

Abbas said a total halt to settlement activities, removing the military checkpoints in the West Bank and a return of the Israeli forces to the pre-September 28, 2000 lines as stated in the road map peace plan should precede resuming peace talks with Israel.

He expressed hope that the upcoming peace conference planned to be held in Moscow in the first half of this year "will be an important step to achieve peace in the Middle East."

Lavrov also called on Israel to stop settlement activities in order to create the proper atmosphere to resume peace negotiations.

"We will exert every effort possible to help the parties resume the peace process and this means both sides have to abide by the terms of the road map, which calls for cessation of violence and cessation of settlement activities," said Lavrov, who expressed "deep concern" over the Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip.

"If this happens, then it will be possible to resume the peace process," he said, explaining that he noticed after talking to Israeli officials on Sunday their "readiness to create an atmosphere to resume the peace process."

Lavrov defended Russia's talks with the Islamic movement Hamas saying that this "was proven right." He explained that many Western countries "have admitted that not having contacts with Hamas was harmful."

He said Russia will continue contacts with Hamas with the goal of helping the Palestinian people overcome their differences and in order to convince Hamas to accept the peace programme of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas said the internal Palestinian reconciliation dialogue will start in Cairo on Sunday with a goal to "set up a government that will not bring a blockade upon us and hold presidential and legislative elections in the nearest time possible."

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