Palestinian leader vows peace, urges settlement end
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed on Saturday to do everything possible to make peace negotiations with Israel succeed and avoided any direct threats to break off the talks over settlements.
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Abbas said the Palestinians would "exert every sincere effort" to reach a peace agreement with Israel within a year.
He did not refer to Sunday's expiry of an Israeli freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank. But he made clear that Israel would have to cease all settlement activities if the direct negotiations with Israel were to succeed.
"Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements," he said.
Abbas has threatened repeatedly to break off the fragile negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the settlements. The U.S.-supervised talks are aimed at reaching a peace agreement within a year.
Netanyahu, whose rightist coalition government includes pro-settler parties, has so far deflected U.S. President Barack Obama's pleas to extend the freeze. He has also said renewed construction in the settlements might be on a reduced scale.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Abbas on Friday in New York to persuade the Palestinians to remain in the talks.
It was not clear if Clinton and Abbas planned to meet again before the Palestinian leader heads back to the Middle East.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said former Senator George Mitchell, U.S. special envoy on the Middle East, met Abbas for 30 minutes in New York on Saturday.
"We are doing everything we can to keep the parties in direct talks," Crowley said, declining further comment.
Israel has told the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table without preconditions.
Abbas told the 192-nation General Assembly the Israelis needed to take a number of steps in addition to halting settlements, including ending the blockade of the Gaza Strip and dismantling its West Bank barrier.
"Our demands for the cessation of settlement activities, the lifting of the siege and an end to other illegal Israeli policies and practices do not constitute arbitrary preconditions in the peace process," he said.
"Israel's implementation of these obligations and commitments will lead to the creation of the necessary environment for the success of the negotiations and will give credibility to the final agreement reached," he said.
Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, warned Israel it would bear the blame if the talks break down over the issue of settlements.
"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.
"Israel should also bear the responsibility for any negative consequences," he said in his speech to the assembly.