French president, in West Bank, urges Israeli settlement halt

RAMALLAH, West Bank Mon Nov 18, 2013 7:02am EST

French President Francois Hollande gestures during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) in Jerusalem November 17, 2013. REUTERS/Alain Jocard/Pool

French President Francois Hollande gestures during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) in Jerusalem November 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Alain Jocard/Pool

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande called on Israel on Monday to halt settlement building on occupied territory, saying it hampers chances for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel has announced plans for thousands of new settler homes since U.S.-brokered peace negotiations with the Palestinians began in July after a three-year break.

"For the sake of peace and to reach a deal, France calls for the total and definitive end to settlement building because it compromises the two-state solution," Hollande said at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas described settlements as "the greatest threat that could end the peace process and lead to its failure".

But he reaffirmed that talks with Israel would continue for the full nine-month period agreed with the United States.

Hollande held talks on Sunday with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem which focused on international efforts to reach an agreement with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

He met Abbas in Ramallah, the Palestinians' seat of government in the occupied West Bank, and laid a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat, their guerrilla leader and first president who died in 2004.

After a public signing of economic aid and development agreements, Hollande said France had donated more in budget support to the Palestinians than to any other nation.

Palestinian negotiators last week offered to resign in protest against Israel's settlement drive, but Palestinian officials confirmed to Reuters that they would likely stay in place until they agreed to return or a new delegation was formed.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator, told Israeli radio on Monday that her Palestinian counterpart was "back in business" and that talks, paused for more than a week, would resume.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, now under the control of Abbas's Hamas Islamist rivals, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They fear Israel's settlements will deny them a viable country.

More than 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem alongside 2.5 million Palestinians. Israeli cites historical and Biblical links to those areas.

Most countries consider the settlements Israel has built on land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal.

(Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Crispian Balmer, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

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