RAMALLAH Palestinians said on Friday the U.S. veto of an Arab-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement building on occupied land harmed the cause of peace by letting Israel escape its obligations.
"The American veto does not serve the peace process and encourages Israel to continue settlements, and to escape the obligations of the peace process," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a close aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
This veto will complicate matters in the Middle East," he told Reuters after the vote at the United Nations in New York.
Abbas came out of his office to meet hundreds of supporters.
"What we have sought and what we are seeking is that the occupiers leave our country so that we can build our independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," he told them. "We will not accept settlements regardless of their shape."
The United States vetoed the resolution after personal appeals to Abbas by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to persuade the Palestinian leader to withdraw it or accept a non-binding motion.
The other 14 council members voted in favor of the draft resolution. British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of Britain, France and Germany, condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
"They are illegal under international law," he said.
U.S. ambassador Susan Rice told council members the veto "should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity." However, she said the draft "risks hardening the position of both sides" in the peace negotiations.
Israel welcomed the veto, saying in a statement that it deeply appreciated Obama's decision.
"The decision makes it clear that the only path to peace will come through direct negotiations and not through the decisions of international bodies," a written statement issued from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.
The talks have been suspended since September over Israel's refusal to extend its 2010 moratorium on settlement building and Abbas's refusal to resume talks until the Israeli government halts construction of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
Palestinian officials said it would have been political suicide to cave in to U.S. pressure. One PLO member, noting the wave of protest in the Arab world that swept away the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, said Abbas would have been toppled had he given in.
"Over 137 states support our endeavor. We are not giving in to any pressure," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Abbas aide. Asked if the rebuff to Obama was a risk, he said: "The real risk is if we hesitate when the freedom of the Palestinian people is at stake."
It was the first U.S. veto cast by the Obama administration.
In a speech in Cairo shortly after assuming the presidency, Obama said: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
The Palestinians say continued building flouts the internationally-backed peace plan that will permit them to create a viable, contiguous state on the land after a treaty with Israel to end its occupation and 62 years of conflict.
Israel says this is an excuse for avoiding peace talks and a precondition never demanded before during 17 years of negotiation, which has so far produced no agreement.
A PLO official said the leadership was ready to risk "a diplomatic crisis" with Washington.
"Now we have nothing to lose," he said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Assadi, Ali Sawafta and Maayan Lubell; additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York; writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Jon Boyle)