Arab Nations Back Settlement Freeze Demand, Give U.S. Time to Revive Talks

The Arab League backed the Palestinian Authority’s position not to resume direct peace talks until Israel renews a freeze on settlement building, and gave the U.S. more time to revive the peace effort.

An Arab League committee, conferring with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Sirte, Libya, said late yesterday in a statement that it will meet in a month to “explore alternatives” to direct talks. The panel agreed to give U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration a chance to “create the suitable circumstances to bring the peace process back to the right track, mainly stopping the construction of settlements.”

“There will be no talks until the freeze on the construction of settlements” returns, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said in a telephone interview from Ramallah in the West Bank. The Arab League statement didn’t disclose the alternatives.

Israel has signaled that a compromise may be reached in the dispute over settlement construction. Incentives offered by the Obama administration may allow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push through his Cabinet a limited renewal of the freeze, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. said.

“The U.S. has come back to Israel with a number of suggestions, incentives if you would, that enable the government to maybe pass a limited extension of two or three months,” Ambassador Michael Oren told the Washington Post.

‘Positive Signal’

“We appreciate the Arab League’s statement of support for our efforts to create conditions that will allow direct talks to move forward,” Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the parties, and all our international partners, to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that end.”

The U.S. had asked the Arab League yesterday for a “positive signal” about continuing the negotiations. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “it’s only through direct negotiations that any of these issues are going to ultimately be resolved.”

Hamas criticized the Arab League decision, saying it was wrong to support the talks even with the settlement freeze. The Islamic movement, classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, gained full control of the Gaza Strip after a clash with Abbas’s Fatah movement in 2007 divided a Palestinian unity government.

Hamas Criticism

“The talks mustn’t be given another chance, because it gives a cover for any type of negotiations,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in an e-mailed statement to reporters in Gaza. “The Arabs must adopt a unified strategy that backs armed resistance and backs the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu said on Oct. 4 that he was in “sensitive diplomatic contacts” with the U.S. administration to find a solution to the crisis that would allow the negotiations to continue. A 10-month partial Israeli halt to the work expired Sept. 26.

Palestinian negotiators involved in the talks with Israel have indicated a willingness to accept a temporary extension of the building moratorium. The Arab League statement called for a halt in construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as a future capital.

One alternative Arabs may consider is asking the United Nations Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in an interview with Al Jazeera television after the meeting.

View From Egypt

“They should not seek alternatives,” said Moustafa El- Husseini, an Egyptian political commentator and co-author of a book on the Arab-Israeli conflict entitled “The Dilemma of an Arab, the Dilemma of a Jew.”

“The strongest option Arabs have is to say we won’t talk until settlement construction stops,” he said by telephone from Cairo. Such a position may lead to increased tension between Netanyahu and Obama in the event Israel refuses to renew the partial freeze, he added.

The Arab League said that settlement construction eats into land Palestinians want for their future state.

“If settlement construction continues, all the talk about a Palestinian state becomes meaningless,” Amre Moussa, secretary-general of the group, said in a telephone interview on Oct. 7. “This is everybody’s position,” he said.

“We’re not against negotiations, but we’re not just doing it for show,” he said.

Violence Rises

The start of peace talks has seen an increase in violence. Israel said its army killed two members of the Islamic group Hamas who were suspected of involvement in an attack near a West Bank settlement in August that left four Israelis dead.

The military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigades, vowed to avenge the killings yesterday “by all possible means.”

Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed last month to try to reach a comprehensive agreement within a year. They will have to resolve issues at the core of the conflict, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements for Israel, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu agreed in November to the partial freeze on settlement construction in a move he said was aimed at persuading the Palestinians to return to negotiations. The moratorium didn’t include about 3,000 housing units approved before the freeze and some public buildings such as kindergartens.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alaa Shahine in Cairo at asalha@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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