Israel, Palestinians trade blame for peace deadlock

JERUSALEM Fri Aug 21, 2009 8:03am EDT

An Israeli holds a placard during a right-wing protest in Jerusalem July 27, 2009 against President Barack Obama's demand to freeze Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

An Israeli holds a placard during a right-wing protest in Jerusalem July 27, 2009 against President Barack Obama's demand to freeze Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians on Friday traded blame for failure to resume stalled peace talks after President Barack Obama renewed his call on both sides to resume negotiations as soon as possible.

A senior Israeli official said the Palestinians had rejected repeated calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume talks that have been frozen for eight months.

"The government of Israel has been calling for weeks to the Palestinians to return to the negotiation table," he said. "It is the Palestinian side that has prevented the return to talks by making unprecedented preconditions."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected the charge, saying it was not the Palestinians who were setting new conditions but the Israelis who were flouting obligations to stop settlement in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"We don't have any conditions. Stopping settlement activity and resuming permanent status negotiations are Israeli obligations and not Palestinian conditions," Erekat said.

The impasse over settlements has created the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade.

Obama made a fresh bid on Thursday to break the deadlock on Middle East peace, calling on Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to act simultaneously to help kick-start negotiations. He made the appeal during a phone call with Jordan's King Abdullah.

Obama's proposal seeks to overcome deep disagreement between Israelis and Arabs on which side should go first in making conciliatory gestures to revive a peace process the president has promised to relaunch.

MOVEMENT

Netanyahu took office in March resisting pressure from Israel's main ally to halt settlement activity and avoiding commitment to a two-state solution. But he has moved way some since then to meet Washington's demands.

Israel disclosed this month it had not given final approval for any new housing projects in the West Bank since Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition took office.

The Israeli leader is due to hold talks with Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in London next week.

Obama said this week after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he was seeing signs of progress on the thorny issue of Israeli settlement construction.

The White House said the aim of Mitchell's talks was to finalize with the parties the steps they would take, and "lay the groundwork for the resumption of negotiations."

Netanyahu is trying to appease Washington without alienating hawks in his coalition government.

He interrupted his summer holiday on Thursday to summon a minister of his own right-wing Likud party who described left-wing opponents of Jewish settlement as a "virus."

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said this week that Israel could not halt settlement expansion forever.

Israel Radio quoted him as saying Israel could not put up with such a suspension for an extended period of time.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace talks with Israel in December over its military offensive in the Gaza Strip. He has said repeatedly that talks cannot resume unless all settlement construction stops.

Obama has appealed to Arab states to make peace overtures to Israel but they insist that Israel should act first.

Arab leaders say they are committed to a 2002 Arab League peace initiative that offers Israel recognition in return for withdrawal from land occupied in 1967, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just" solution for Palestinian refugees.

(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Ralph Boulton)

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