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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians warned on Monday they might boycott peace negotiations starting this week after Israel defied Washington and other international sponsors of the process by planning new homes on occupied land.
The chief negotiators, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurie and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, met to prepare the relaunch of talks on Wednesday. The negotiations, after an often violent seven-year hiatus, follow two weeks after U.S. President George W. Bush hosted a conference at Annapolis.
Senior Palestinian officials said Qurie, insisting Israel honor a pledge renewed at Annapolis to end settlement activity, demanded it cancel a construction tender announced days after the conference. The plan is to build 307 homes and other units in an existing settlement near Jerusalem on land Israel annexed from the West Bank after it occupied the territory in 1967.
If not, they said, some leaders have proposed a boycott over construction at the site, which gained notoriety when the start of building in 1997 triggered a collapse in peace talks.
"There's a debate within the Palestinian leadership between those who call for boycotting talks on Wednesday and those who say go, but focus only on demanding a settlement freeze," said Azzam al-Ahmad from President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party.
Livni's spokesman said only that the meeting was to prepare talks on Wednesday between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He noted the Israeli position that the settlement at Har Homa, known as Abu Ghneim by Arabs, falls outside commitments in the 2003 road map peace plan because it was annexed to Israel.
The annexation of East Jerusalem and adjacent West Bank land is not recognized internationally and Palestinians see building at the site, just north of Bethlehem, as part of a plan to divide the West Bank in two and isolate Arab East Jerusalem, which Abbas wants as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters: "It's putting the negotiations and the peace process in jeopardy this time ... Qurie demanded that Israel revoke the tenders to build in Jabal Abu Ghneim and give peace the chance it deserves."
On Monday, the European Union joined the United States and United Nations in voicing concern about the new building plan.
"May I ... call on the Israeli government indeed to abide by all of its commitments being made before and at Annapolis and also to avoid any action that might put the process of building confidence on both sides into question," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in Brussels.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has invested much political capital in the process for the final year of the Bush administration, said the Har Homa tender "doesn't help build confidence". She warned Israel not to prejudge the outcome of talks intended to determine the fate of Jewish settlements.
Palestinian officials said Qurie and Livni discussed key issues that will be addressed in a negotiating process that Bush has said he hopes can conclude a deal on establishing a Palestinian state next year, before he steps down in 13 months.
These also include the future of Jerusalem, the borders of the two states, the fate of Palestinian refugees and water.
Few on either side are anything but skeptical of Abbas and Olmert's ability to deliver, given their weaknesses at home.
Olmert, in a speech that addressed widespread Israeli doubts that Abbas can meet his road map commitment to prevent attacks on the Jewish state, said on Monday: "This leadership is not strong enough ... However, there is a leadership which declares its desire to make peace with us. This is an opportunity."
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told EU ministers in Brussels he was committed to continuing efforts to establish new security forces and complained Israeli settlement activity was bolstering support for those who reject the peace process.
"How can we stem the tide of rejectionism and convince our people that the peace process will lead to our freedom when, at the same time, Israel continues to build and expand settlements?" Fayyad said, according a text of his speech.
Palestinian negotiators said they feared Israel was trying to avoid negotiating on Jerusalem for fear of a backlash among right-wing voters. Olmert's vice premier said on Sunday that Israel should hand over some occupied Arab areas to Palestinian control if it wanted to retain the support of its U.S. ally.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald