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Mideast Peace Efforts In Disarray Over Settlement Row


The Jewish settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Arab East Jerusalem
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas says peace talks with Israel are in "crisis" after Washington's decision to drop its demand for a new freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Speaking today during a visit to Greece, Abbas also said he hoped the European Union would get involved in relaunching the negotiations.

The comments came after the United States admitted that it had failed to get Israel to renew a moratorium on Israeli building in the occupied territories.

Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians were suspended in September after the 10-month freeze expired.

In a press briefing in New York on December 7, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington would explore other ways to bring the two sides together.

"We will have further conversations on the substance with the parties and will continue to try to find ways to create the kind of confidence that will eventually, we hope, allow them to engage directly," Crowley said.

Officials say chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak are heading to Washington for talks, apparently aimed at salvaging the peace process.

Back To The Beginning

Palestinian-Israeli peace talks appear to have returned to the point where they were earlier this year, when U.S. envoy George Mitchell began shuttling between the two sides in indirect negotiations.

In Jerusalem, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel remained committed to continue efforts to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"It is our firm belief that the Palestinian desire for sovereignty is pursuable to reconcile with Israel's needs for security," Regev said.

Zvi Hauser, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio it wasn't clear what the next stage would be. But he added, "Apparently matters will be conducted at this stage via an indirect channel."

In an interview with Reuters in Ramallah, Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said it was "completely unfortunate that the American efforts to convince Israel to stop the expansion of settlements is not successful, because the Palestinian side believes that stopping the Israeli expansion of settlement is a necessary requirement for meaningful and successful peace negotiations."

And an aide to Abbas questioned Washington's ability to forge Middle East peace.

Yasser Abed Rabbo told the Voice of Palestine radio station: "The one who couldn't make Israel limit its settlement activities in order to conduct serious negotiations, how can he be able to make Israel accept a fair solution?"

"This is the big question now," he added.

Return To Deadlock

In Brussels, a European Union spokeswoman said the bloc regretted that Israel had "not been in a position to accept" an extension of the construction moratorium. Maja Kocijancic said such settlements were "illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace."

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton today reaffirmed the bloc's opposition to "illegal" Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The European Union forms with the United States, Russia, and the United Nations the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators.

At the relaunch of talks in Washington on September 2, Abbas and Netanyahu vowed to seek agreement on the core issues within a year -- including the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the status of the city of Jerusalem.

But the Palestinians withdrew from the talks when the West Bank settlement moratorium expired on September 26, saying they would not negotiate while Jewish settlers build on land they want for a future state.

Netanyahu has offered to renew the freeze if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state.

In an attempt to revive direct talks, Washington offered Israel a package of incentives including jet fighters as well as diplomatic guarantees in return for a three-month building moratorium.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, settling nearly 500,000 Jews in more than 100 settlements. These settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

compiled from agency reports