Peace talks off unless Israel extends settlement freeze
The Palestinian leadership confirmed yesterday that it would not return to direct peace negotiations with the Israelis without an extension of the now-expired freeze on settlement construction, amid determined but increasingly frustrated efforts by the Americans to keep the talks alive.
The executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) met in Ramallah to consider its position following the end of the moratorium last weekend. Palestinian negotiators have said repeatedly they would not stay at the negotiating table unless the freeze was extended, and that Israel must choose between settlements and peace.
"The leadership confirms that the resumption of talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official. "The Palestinian leadership holds Israel responsible for obstructing the negotiations."
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said efforts had reached "a dead end".
"There will be no negotiations in the shadow of continued settlement," Mr Abu Rdainah said. "All the while Israel is not convinced that the political process be based on international law and justice, matters will remain in a state of paralysis for a long time."
Mr Abbas is unlikely to make a definitive statement on whether the Palestinians will formally withdraw from the talks until a meeting of the Arab League in the coming week. Originally scheduled for tomorrow, the meeting has already been moved to Wednesday and may be postponed again until Friday.
Prospects for a compromise on the issue of settlement building appear to be receding. The Israeli government is reported to have rejected a US proposal last week, under which the Americans offered a raft of guarantees -- including increased military aid for Israel -- in exchange for a 60-day extension.
Washington's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, were both in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week in the attempt to bring the two sides closer together, without any apparent movement in positions.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is thought to be unwilling to test the robustness of his right-wing coalition government by proposing an extension to the freeze. However, some commentators believe he could drive it through with sufficient political will.
The Israelis are now attempting to deflect blame for the expected breakdown of talks on to the Palestinians. "Now I expect the Palestinians to show some flexibility," Mr Netanyahu said at the end of last week.
"Everyone knows that measured and restrained building in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] in the coming year will have no influence on the peace map."