Quraya met three members of the US Congress on Saturday in Ram Allah. In a statement, he pointed to the "impossibility of resuming negotiations on a permanent status" for the Palestinian territories if Washington accepts settlements "being put under Israeli sovereignty".

"Israel needs to be dissuaded from committing illegal acts, and only the American administration can do that," he said. 

Earlier on Saturday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with the Washington Post that Israeli obligations to a "settlement freeze" were being studied.

The remarks came a day after she was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying Israeli settlement expansion plans were against US policy and could hurt the peace process.

Quraya said Rice's statement about the Israeli plans was "not enough" and demanded Washington take a clear stance on settlements, regarded as illegal under international law.

Ambassador's statement

On Friday, US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer said "US policy is the support that the president has given for the retention by Israel of the major Israeli population centres as an outcome of negotiations".

Kurtzer was responding to a report in the Israeli Yediot Aharonot daily that quoted him as saying Washington had not made any such promise to Israel.

"Israel needs to be dissuaded from committing illegal acts, and only the American administration can do that"

Ahmad Quraya,
Palestinian prime minister

The paper said Kurtzer "refuted" an Israeli claim that there was an "understanding" with Washington that in a future agreement with the Palestinians, Israel would retain sovereignty over large settlement blocs.

"I tell you that no such understandings were ever reached, and I checked the matter with Washington," the paper quoted Kurtzer as saying, attributing it to "a misunderstanding" by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But later, Kurtzer said: "This story has no basis in fact ... There is no misunderstanding between our two governments. Our policy remains absolutely clear and absolutely firm and it is in black and white in a letter that the president gave to the prime minister."

Israeli interpretation

Israel has interpreted Bush's letter as carte blanche to hold on to the large settlements, and on the route of the West Bank separation wall, which will include large blocs such as Ariel and Maale Adumim.

But in the Los Angeles Times, Rice criticised Israel over its plans to build 3500 housing units in Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

She said those plans, revealed earlier this week, were "at odds with American policy" and that the Israeli explanations were "not really a satisfactory response".

She also said the only US "commitment or assurance" in the 14 April letter was that the final borders of a promised Palestinian state had to take into account demographic realities.

"Settlement must stop; if not, it will provoke a catastrophe"

Mahmud Abbas,
Palestinian president

Those realities included major Israeli population centres in the West Bank, she said, but added: "How that is taken into account has to be negotiated."

Rice said there was no US support for new building within settlements, but swiftly added that the meaning of the "settlement freeze" required of Israel under the internationally drafted road map peace plan of 2003 was still up for discussion.

Palestinian reaction

Kurtzer's comments on Friday prompted a furious response from the Palestinians, with chief negotiator Saib Uraiqat charging that Washington had no right to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians.

"The United States cannot negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people. What Bush has promised Sharon is unacceptable," he said. "Settlement is illegal throughout the West Bank."

But on Saturday Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas characterised Rice's remarks as "positive."

Her declarations, as well as those of Bush, "are positive, but we are waiting for them to be transformed into reality", he said.

"Settlement must stop; if not, it will provoke a catastrophe."