Palestinians: Direct talks only if Israel settlements end

Palestinians: Direct talks only if Israel settlements end

Palestinians responded coolly Wednesday to calls by US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move from indirect to direct peace negotiations, DPA reported 

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blamed Netanyahu for blocking the way to direct negotiations, because of his refusal to meet Palestinian demands for a full freeze on Israeli construction in both the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority has decried as insufficient a partial 10-month freeze on construction in Israeli West Bank settlements - but not East Jerusalem - which Netanyahu declared last November.

Erekat, asked if he expected more US pressure on the Palestinians in the wake of Tuesday's meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, said: "The whole world and the US administration knows that the one who is blocking the door to direct negotiations is Netanyahu.

"We are sincerely interested in starting direct negotiations, but Netanyahu keeps closing the door in front of us," Erekat told Voice of Palestine Radio. "Netanyahu must decide if he wants peace or settlements. He cannot have both."

He also reiterated that the Palestinians first want to see progress in indirect talks on the issues of borders and security, and for direct negotiations to resume from where they ended in December 2008, during an election campaign in Israel that saw the nationalist Netanyahu return to power.

"The world knows that starting direct talks is in the hands of Netanyahu. All he has to do is say that all settlement activities, even those in Jerusalem, will stop," Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said.

"We have had a peace process for 19 years, but the Israeli settlement policy has not changed," he added.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak however said that there was a good chance that the direct talks would begin soon.

He told Israel Radio that the main result of the Obama-Netanyahu parley was that an attempt will be made to begin the direct talks even before the end of the construction freeze in September.

As a result, he said, the question of what would happen once the freeze ends "will take place against the backdrop of direct negotiations with the Palestinians on all the core issues with the goal of reaching an arrangement."

"The moment we have direct talks with the Palestinians on all the subjects, all the other things, all the obstacles, hidden and revealed, are given a different proportion," he said.

Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas' spokesman in Gaza, said his Islamist organization "refutes Obama's call for direct negotiations," which he said would only serve as a "cover up" for continuing the occupation. He also charged that Obama's and Netanyahu's statements again showed "there is no hope for change in US foreign policy."

He additionally rejected Obama's praise of Israeli steps to ease its economic blockade of Gaza, saying "we want the siege to be completely lifted."

Tuesday's White House meeting - Netanyahu's first since a chilly reception in March - revived heated differences within his largely hardline cabinet on whether Israel should extend its partial moratorium on Israeli construction in the West Bank.

Ministers of the left-to-centre Labour Party support an extension, while hawks in Netanyahu's nationalist Likud and in other right-wing and ultra-right coalition parties oppose it.

The moratorium, which excludes Jewish neighbourhoods built in annexed East Jerusalem, is due to expire on September 26.

Ultra-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted Wednesday that Israel has not made "any promises" to Obama regarding an extension of the settlement moratorium and that the issue had not been the main one on the agenda.

"We must ensure that normal life continues (in the settlements) for those who were sent there by all the governments of Israel," Lieberman, who himself lives in a settlement near Jerusalem, told Israel Radio.

Barak, leader of the centre-left Labour Party insisted, however, that there was more to the White House meeting than published. He said Netanyahu had shown Obama that he was serious and prepared to act regarding the peace process. That was the reason for the Labour Party to stay in the coalition, he said.

Barak has been criticized internally for serving as a "fig leaf" in Netanyahu's otherwise right-wing coalition, despite the absence of a meaningful peace process.

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