PARIS (Reuters) - Qatar faulted Israel for building Jewish settlements on Sunday after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry briefed Arab diplomats in an effort to garner support for nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The comment by Qatari Foreign Minister Qatari Khaled al-Attiya, while consistent with long-standing Arab positions, came as the United States seeks to build momentum for the talks which resumed on July 29 after a nearly three-year hiatus.
“There are obstacles,” al-Attiya told reporters through an after Kerry met the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Palestinian Authority and Arab League representatives.
“We are talking about settlements,” he said at a joint news conference with Kerry. “Each time a round of negotiations is supposed to start, it’s preceded by a declaration of continued settlements or the announcement of the establishment of new settlements and this is a source of concern for us and directly affects the negotiations.”
Kerry, who later met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for dinner in London, said it was vital that all sides, including the Arab world, support the parties as they try to make peace.
“This meeting is almost as important as the negotiations themselves because the Arab League and the Arab community’s support for a final status agreement is essential to the achievement of that agreement,” Kerry told reporters.
Briefing reporters on Friday, a senior State Department official alluded to the collapse of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s effort to strike an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in 2000, a failure attributed in part to a lack of Arab backing.
“If you don’t have key Arab players in on the takeoff, you cannot expect them to be in on the landing,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The key issues to be resolved in the conflict include borders, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
U.S. officials have refused to provide any information about the substance of the talks, declining even to say how many times Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met since they began.
Kerry publicly reiterated his private call on the European Union on Saturday to postpone a planned ban on EU financial assistance to Israeli organizations in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying this would help the talks.
The EU imposed restrictions in July, citing its frustration over the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in territory captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Middle East War.
The guidelines render Israeli entities operating in the occupied territories ineligible for EU grants, prizes or loans, beginning next year.
They angered Israel’s rightist government, which accused the Europeans of undermining peace talks and responded by announcing curbs on EU aid projects for many West Bank Palestinians.
Palestinians praised the guidelines as a concrete step against settlement construction on Israeli-occupied land, which they fear will deny them a viable state.
Jewish settler leaders say the aid they receive from Europe is minimal. But many in Israel worry about possible knock-on effects the EU steps may have on individuals or companies based in Israel that might be involved in business in the settlements, deemed illegal by the international community.
Kerry said he had urged the EU to suspend the steps while the negotiations continued, saying Israel should see the benefit of staying in talks as well as the price it could pay if they fail.
“It’s important that the Israeli people and the government see that coming to the talks, taking the risk of moving towards peace, is worthwhile,” he said.
“Also, it sort of underscores that if there’s a failure to achieve a peace, bigger problems await,” he added, citing talk of a boycott of Israeli goods.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall