|Abbas did not refer to Sunday’s expiry of an Israeli freeze on new illegal settlements in the West Bank [AFP]|
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has said that Israel must choose between “peace and the continuation of illegal settlements” in the occupied territories if it wants international talks to succeed.
Abbas made no mention of a threat to quit the US-organised talks, but in an address to the UN general assembly on Saturday he condemned “the mentality of expansion and domination” that controls Israel’s policies.
The US has launched a desperate bid to head off a potential crisis if Israel refuses to extend a moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank that ends at midnight on Sunday.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the peace process, have both met Abbas and Israeli officials in New York in recent days in an attempt to hold the negotiations together.
“The discussions are pretty intense right now,” Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said.
“We are urging Israel to extend the moratorium and we are also making clear to the Palestinians that we do not believe that it is in their interest to walk out of the talks.”
Israeli ‘wriggle room’
Despite not mentioning the moratorium in his UN address, Abbas later told Al Jazeera that the issue was key to the continuation of the direct talks.
“We’re waiting for the Israeli government to agree to continue the moratorium, so that we will be able to carry out negotiations in a calm atmosphere regarding the core issues,” he said.
“Our wounded hands are still able to carry the olive branch from the rubble of the trees that the occupation uproots every day”
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, whose right-wing coalition government includes pro-settler parties, has so far deflected pleas from Barack Obama, the US president, to extend the freeze, but he has said renewed construction might be on a reduced scale.
Al Jazeera’s Nick Spicer, reporting from the UN in New York, said that Israel is “getting a little bit creative with the date on which the settlement freeze would expire”.
“We understand that as far as the Israeli army is concerned, it could be on the 29th or the 30th. So the Israelis seems to be moving towards some kind of wriggle room,” he said.
“But they are not in any sense giving any signals that they are going to give up on the concept of restarting settlement construction.”
Israeli settlers began preparing for the end of the moratorium on Saturday. In the Revava settlement, deep inside the West Bank, bulldozers, cement mixers and other equipment were moved in as residents planned to symbolically lay the cornerstone for a new neighbourhood, officials said.
“The moment that the freeze is lifted, they will do the work openly,” Danny Danon, a pro-settler Likud politician, said.
Outside the West Bank city of Hebron, violence broke out as Palestinians protested against the presence of another settlement.
‘Expansion and domination’
In his speech, Abbas said Palestinians face “dangerous problems that continue to push them into the corner of violence and conflict, wasting chance after chance to seriously address the issues faced by the people of the region and to attain comprehensive and genuine solutions”.
“This is the result of the mentality of expansion and domination, which still controls the ideology and policies of Israel, the occupying power,” he said
|Clashes broke out as Palestinians protested against a settlement near the city of Hebron [AFP]|
Abbas also spoke about the status of Jerusalem and accused Israel of trying to change its heritage and composition in an effort to pre-empt final talks.
But he added that Palestinians still want peace and declared: “Our wounded hands are still able to carry the olive branch from the rubble of the trees that the occupation uproots every day.”
Abbas went on to condemn Israel for its blockade against the Gaza Strip and demanded that the siege should be lifted.
“This illegal blockade and aggression have resulted in the destruction of the infrastructure and productive capacity of Gaza and destroyed 25 per cent of its homes and nearly 75 per cent of its livelihoods, leading to widespread unemployment and dependence on international aid,” he said.
Arab foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the UN in New York to discuss the settlement issue and afterwards said that the continuation of the moratorium was vital to keep alive hopes of a peace deal.
“While the occupied Palestinian territories are under change, in the demographic composition and the geographical character, every day and week it makes the the negotiations just a farce,” Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, warned Israel that it would bear the blame if the talks broke down over the issue.
“If Israel fails in its commitment to continue freezing its settlement activities, then it would expose the negotiation process to failure and it would shoulder full responsibility before the region and world public opinion,” he said.
However, Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based advocacy group American Task Force on Palestine, told Al Jazeera that the Palestinians cannot afford to walk away from the talks.
“I think, in particular, they can’t afford to alienate the United States in that manner,” he said.
“It is a big political problem for the Palestinians to stay in the talks if the Israelis not just don’t renew the moratorium but start building in any significant way.
However, I think it is a bigger diplomatic problem to walk away at this stage and the Palestinians can’t afford to be blamed for the collapse.”
Meanwhile, high-level officials from Hamas and Fatah have launched the latest of several efforts to restart stalled talks between the two Palestinian factions with a “friendly” meeting in the Syrian capital.
Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, hosted Fatah representative Azzam al-Ahmad at his office in Damascus on Friday. The two men said their groups would “hold a meeting shortly” to outline a deal, and then travel to Cairo “to sign a reconciliation agreement”.
“An agreement was reached for a course and the steps to be taken toward reconciliation,” the two men said in a joint statement.
Hamas and Fatah have been estranged for years, and differences sharpened in 2006, when Hamas won elections that would have given it control of the Palestinian legislature. Their split was finalised in 2007, after a year of infighting, when Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip.
Egypt has tried for months to broker an agreement, but talks have repeatedly broken down, most recently in October.
The latest round of talks came after Meshaal met Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, in Saudi Arabia earlier this month.