Abbas says talks over unless Israel halts settlement moves
JERUSALEM - Agence France-PressePalestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned Nov. 12 that he would declare the peace process over unless Israel cancels tenders for nearly 20,000 new settler homes.
The tender announcement was the largest ever made by Israel in the occupied West Bank, settlement watchdog Peace Now said, and threatened to add sharply to the 550,000 Israeli settlers already living in the territory, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
Washington, whose top diplomat John Kerry was in the region just last week in a bid to rescue peace talks already faltering after just three months of meetings, expressed "deep concern." Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP Abbas had tasked him with passing on a formal ultimatum to quit the talks to the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.
"If Israel does not go back on its latest construction plans for the settlements, that will spell a formal declaration of the end of the peace process," Erakat quoted Abbas as saying in his warning.
The Palestinians had already warned on Nov. 11 that they regarded no peace deal as better than one that allowed Israel to press on with settlement expansion.
Erakat said that if Israel did not relent on its settlement drive, the Palestinians would also resume their applications for state membership of international bodies, ending a moratorium they agreed to in July under U.S. pressure.
The housing ministry wanted to invite tenders for a total of 20,000 additional settler homes, Peace Now said.
Washington concerned and surprised
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Washington was not only concerned by the announcement but also surprised.
"We are deeply concerned by this latest report," Psaki said. "We were surprised by this announcement and are currently seeking further explanation from the government of Israel." She repeated the longstanding U.S. position on settlements - reaffirmed by Kerry last week - that "we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity."
Psaki said the United States had "called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations," which, with Kerry's mediation, were relaunched in July after a three-year hiatus.
Settlement construction brought the last round of talks in 2010 to a halt just weeks after they had begun.
Several Israeli officials have claimed the settlement announcements have been in keeping with tacit "understandings" between the two sides linked to the release of 52 veteran Palestinian prisoners since August.
But the Palestinians deny any such agreement exists, a position backed by Kerry last week.
The U.S. top diplomat warned Israel on Nov. 7 that it needed to choose between settlement building and peace, adding that failure to strike an agreement could trigger a new Palestinian uprising.