CAIRO, (AP) – Key U.S. Mideast allies Egypt and Jordan backed on Sunday the Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it continues to build West Bank settlements, but they urged more efforts to salvage peace talks mediated by Washington.
U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell held separate meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman.
“We understand the Palestinian position which calls for setting the appropriate environment and circumstances for negotiations to take place and continue,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said after Mubarak met Mitchell. “The current conditions are not favorable.”
Israel refused last week to extend its 10-month moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements, throwing the month-old peace talks into doubt because Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to quit if building resumes.
Aboul Gheit said the focus now should be on continued U.S. and international efforts to pressure Israel to extend the moratorium.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says there is no point negotiating as long as settlements are eating up the land the Palestinians want for a future state. On Saturday, senior Palestinian officials backed Abbas refusal and said they are now considering alternatives to the direct negotiations if Israel doesn’t budge.
In Jordan, Abdullah met separately with Mitchell and Abbas and he said Israel’s refusal to stop settlements undermines peacemaking. But he stopped short of calling on the Palestinians to end negotiations.
A Royal Palace statement said Abdullah told Abbas that “you have Jordan’s full support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which requires an end to Israel’s unilateral actions … primarily settlement building.” Another palace statement said Abdullah told Mitchell that the U.S. role was crucial for peacemaking to continue.
Mitchell and the leaders discussed the impasse ahead of an Arab League later this week where Palestinians are expected to come to a decision on whether to continue talks with Israel.
Abbas told reporters in Jordan he will continue contacts with the Obama administration to press Israel on settlements.
“Certainly, we will not cut our relations with the Americans and we will continue our contacts to ensure that settlements stop in order for (direct) talks to resume,” Abbas said.
The first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in two years were launched last month in Washington. The two sides then met face-to-face in Egypt and Jerusalem but disagreements over the settlement building curb derailed the negotiations, which are to address the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Now, Mitchell is back to speaking separately with all the parties and consulting regional players to save the floundering process.
“We knew when we began these efforts that there will be a lot of difficulties and obstacles,” Mitchell said after meeting Mubarak. “Despite the differences, both the government of Israel and the Palestinian authority asked us to continue these discussions and efforts.
However, Saturday’s unanimous decision by dozens of senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas’ Fatah movement makes compromise increasingly unlikely.
“There will be no negotiations as long as settlement building continues,” senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said after the three-hour meeting at Abbas’ headquarters.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is serious about reaching a deal within a year and has accused the Palestinians of wasting precious time over secondary issues.
Palestinian leaders said they will now begin to study alternatives, should talks collapse, and step up efforts to reconcile with the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force from Abbas in 2007. The Islamic militant group has repeatedly called on the Palestinian leader to quit the talks, saying they were futile.
On Sunday, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, praised the decision to refuse to negotiate while settlement construction continued, saying Palestinian national reconciliation should take precedent.
But Haniyeh also stressed that the decision “must be followed up to show that it is not just a tactic but is a genuine desire to … work according to a unified national agenda.”