Abbas insists on settlement freeze before talks

The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas insists on a moratorium on settlement building, including in East Jerusalem, before resuming talks with Israel.

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TEL AVIV // US efforts to return Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table were dealt a further blow yesterday after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said he would not resume talks without a settlement freeze that includes East Jerusalem.

Mr Abbas's statements are likely to clash with Israel's demand that any new moratorium on settlement construction exclude most of Arab East Jerusalem. Israel views East Jerusalem as part of its "eternal, undivided" capital - a status not recognised abroad - while the Palestinians want the area as the capital of their future state.

A return to talks is unlikely to be aided, too, by the comments of Israel's national security adviser who late Saturday said it was not clear whether Israel had a Palestinian partner for a peace accord.

Uzi Arad, speaking in an interview with an Israeli television channel, also suggested that Israel would not rule out an interim pact with the Palestinians if it failed to reach a permanent agreement - a possibility the Palestinians have rejected.

Mr Arad's comments are in apparent contradiction with the official stance of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, who called Mr Abbas his "partner in peace" when direct talks between the two sides resumed in early September and declared that he aimed to reach a permanent deal within a year.

Washington is trying to persuade Israel to institute a three-month freeze on new settlement projects to replace the previous 10-month building moratorium that ended on September 26.

Israel's refusal to renew the freeze has prompted Palestinians to refuse to return to the peace talks, which were suspended when Israel's ban expired.

The spat over whether to include East Jerusalem in the US-proposed deal on a renewed settlement moratorium has been one of the key issues delaying the revival of the talks.

Mr Abbas, speaking to reporters in Cairo following a meeting with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, said when asked if he would resume negotiations with Israel: "If there is no complete halt to settlements in all of the Palestinian territories including Jerusalem, we will not accept it."

Mr Netanyahu, however, has insisted that Jewish construction in East Jerusalem continue in an apparent bid to persuade members of his predominantly pro-settler, right-wing coalition to support the US offer.

Eli Yishai, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has said that he will only back a fresh freeze if it excludes the disputed area.

In a sign of the Israeli right's opposition to any new curbs on building, about 4,000 settlers, many of them teenagers from the West Bank, demonstrated in front of Mr Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem yesterday against the possible freeze.

In a bid to pressure government ministers to vote against the deal, many waved placards that read: "We are looking at your hand - vote against it!" and "Benjamin Netanyahu - yes you can say 'no'!"

Jewish schools and municipal services in the West Bank went on strike yesterday and dozens of pro-settler youngsters protested by blocking the main route into Jerusalem and causing traffic jams.

Washington has offered Israel security and diplomatic incentives aimed at convincing the country to institute the moratorium. The offer includes the US transfer of 20 F-35 warplanes worth US$3 billion (Dh11bn) to Israel.

Aside from the disagreement over East Jerusalem's inclusion in the freeze, the deal has also stalled because the US has been reluctant to supply the list of guarantees in writing, as Mr Netanyahu has demanded.

On Friday, though, the US State Department said it was prepared to provide some commitments in writing, but did not provide further details. Over the weekend, a prominent US figure condemned Washington's offer to Israel as overly generous.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, blasted the proposal as a "very bad idea" that rewards Israel for its "bad behaviour" of expanding settlements.

Mr Kurtzer, in a piece published by The Washington Post, wrote of the pending agreement: "If it goes forward, it will be the first direct benefit that the United States has provided Israel for settlement activities that we have opposed for more than 40 years."

Amid the disputes surrounding the peace talks, an Israeli court decision yesterday is also likely to spur tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

The ruling by an Israeli court-martial handed down suspended three-month prison sentences and demotions to two former soldiers who forced a nine-year-old Palestinian boy to look for suspected booby-traps during the onslaught that Israel launched in Gaza in December 2008.

The sentence, which meant that the ex-conscripts are free but face a minimum three-month jail term if they commit another crime, appeared light as legal experts have previously said the soldiers could face up to three years in jail.

Israeli-Palestinian legislators reacted angrily to the decision. "The message here is that the lives of Arabs are considered inferior," said Ahmad Tibi, a legislator in Israel's parliament. "It's no wonder that hundreds of Palestinian children have been killed by the Israeli army without punishment or even condemnation."