Palestinian Negotiators Quit Over Settlement Plans: Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the team he appointed barely three months ago to negotiate a peace agreement has quit to protest Israeli plans to build new homes in Jewish settlements.

Abbas pledged to appoint a new team if the two aides refuse to reverse their decision, Abbas said in an interview with Egypt’s CBC television broadcast today. It’s the second time that negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh have resigned -- they previously said on Oct. 31 that they would leave their posts, though they later returned at the president’s request.

“Either we can convince them to come back, and we’re trying with them, or we form a new delegation,” Abbas said on television. Speaking to Voice of Palestine Radio today, he said the talks, initiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of July, have not achieved any progress so far.

Israel’s Housing Ministry published plans yesterday to build about 24,000 apartment units in settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. The plans were immediately condemned by the U.S. and by Palestinian negotiators, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue a statement saying the building program was only conceptual and effectively “meaningless.”

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz also disputed Kerry’s suggestion that Netanyahu wasn’t serious about the negotiations because he continues to antagonize the Palestinians with new settlement construction.

‘Extremely Serious’

“We are extremely serious, more serious than anyone else,” Steinitz said at a press conference in Jerusalem. “We are eager to make peace, but we have very serious security concerns.”

He cited the fatal stabbing of an Israeli soldier by a Palestinian today on a bus in the Israeli city of Afula as evidence that Netanyahu has reason to insist on security guarantees.

Nabil Shaath, an aide to Abbas and chief of previous negotiating teams, said the Palestinian leadership is paying a price domestically for agreeing to resume negotiations even though Netanyahu refused to freeze construction.

“People are sick and tired,” Shaath said in a telephone interview. “They are facing questions from their audience every day, ‘Why the hell are you negotiating with people who are using every minute of the negotiating time to destroy everything on the ground?’”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it’s up to Abbas to decide the makeup of the Palestinian negotiating team, and that it’s a “good sign” that the Palestinian leader “went out and reaffirmed his commitment” to the talks.

“Our focus remains on the end goal, which is that the negotiations continue,” she told reporters.

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