Abbas Says Talks Will Collapse If Israel Expands Settlements in West Bank

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said an Israeli refusal to extend a construction freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank would undermine direct peace talks that start this week in Washington.

“Israel will be responsible for the failure or collapse of the talks if it continues expanding settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967,” Abbas said in a speech broadcast late yesterday on state-run Palestine Satellite Television.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday told ministers from his Likud party that there was no change in the Cabinet decision to resume building in settlements on Sept. 26, said an official who was present at the meeting and spoke anonymously as he was not authorized to speak to the press on the matter. Netanyahu declared a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction last November.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last week that the U.S. had invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington to meet face to face and formally open direct talks with the goal of achieving an accord within 12 months. Peace talks broke off in December 2008 after Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Aug. 25 that the government won’t extend the settlement freeze, which halted new construction excluding public buildings and some 3,000 homes that previously received government approval. Lieberman’s opposition to the extension is supported by many of the ministers in Netanyahu’s government.

Rabbi’s ‘Plague’ Remarks

The U.S. criticized remarks by the spiritual leader of the Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said in an Aug. 28 sermon that he wished a “plague” on Abbas and all the Palestinians. Shas has 11 seats in parliament and is a member of Netanyahu’s coalition.

“These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley said in a statement. “As we move forward to relaunch peace negotiations, it is important that actions by people on all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it.”

The remarks “do not reflect the position or approach of the prime minister or his government,” an e-mailed statement from Netanyahu’s office said. “Israel is going to the negotiations out of a desire to advance toward an agreement with the Palestinians that will put an end to the conflict.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net; Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza at sramadan@bloomberg.net

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