Sharp exchanges at UN over Middle East peace, Iran

Israeli and Palestinian officials traded accusations over the failure to achieve peace in the region while Western powers sharply condemned Iran's threats against Israel during a series of meetings and speeches on the Middle East at the United Nations on Friday, dpa reported.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who addressed both the UN General Assembly and Security Council, said Israel's continued building of settlements in the West Bank was the "main obstacle" to achieving a two-state solution. He said the patchwork of settlements made it near impossible to create a viable Palestinian state.

That message received broad support in a meeting of the Security Council. The gathering was intended to exclusively discuss ongoing Israeli settlement activity, but a number of ministers sought to broaden the message beyond just Israel's transgressions.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the settlements "illegal under international law" but praised the wider peace talks being held by the Israelis and Palestinians. He said the talks had continued despite the best efforts of "extremists" and called on the Palestinian Authority to continue combatting terrorism.

Israel's UN ambassador Gabriela Shalev criticized the council for ignoring the threats posed by the radical Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the repeated threats against Israel from Iran. She acknowledged settlements were a "sensitive issue," but denied they were the "principle and singular" obstacle to peace in the region.

The 15-nation council held the debate at the request of Saudi Arabia and the Arab League on a day when the so-called Middle East quartet - made up of the US, European Union, UN and Russia - was set to discuss the peace process at UN headquarters in New York.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the council that the United States was still working hard towards finding a deal and praised the "viable, robust, peace process." President George W Bush hosted a Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November where both sides pledged to reach a deal by the end of this year.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would strive to achieve the "maximum progress possible" in talks with Israel this year. Israeli President Shimon Perez said Wednesday he didn't expect a final solution until 2009.

But Rice also angrily chided the Security Council for not condemning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fresh threats against Israel made during a speech before the UN General Assembly earlier this week.

"When this council decides what really needs to be taken up as a threat to international peace and security, that to me makes the top of the list," Rice told the council.

"The United States will be asking the council to convene again to take up the matter of one member of the United Nations calling for the destruction of another member of the United Nations in a way that simply should not be allowed, if you would pardon my saying so in polite company," Rice said.

British Foreign Minister David Miliband said he was "truly sorry the council could not find unity in the denunciation of (Ahmadinejad's) remarks."

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa told reporters that the council had been "unanimous" in its condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, which he said made the prospects of achieving a two-state solution "very difficult, if not impossible."

The ongoing settlement activity "has killed Annapolis," Mussa said.

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