JERUSALEM (AFP) – US envoy George Mitchell headed to the Middle East on Tuesday to try to rescue peace talks as Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas demanded the renewal of a moratorium on Israeli settlements.
The negotiations, relaunched on September 2 after months of tortuous shuttle diplomacy, were on the brink of collapse after a 10-month moratorium on the building of new settler homes in the West Bank expired on Sunday.
Abbas said he will not officially respond to the move until he meets with the Palestinian leadership this week and Arab foreign ministers on October 4, but that settlements should be halted for the duration of the peace talks.
“We demand a moratorium for as long as there are negotiations, because for as long as there are negotiations there is hope,” he told a French radio station on Tuesday during a visit to Paris.
“We don’t want to stop these negotiations but if settlement building continues, we will be obliged to stop,” Abbas said.
He added that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “should understand that peace is more important than settlement building.”
Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks by telephone late Monday that were described by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley as “very significant, very detailed, very direct.”
Crowley told reporters in Washington the talks built on the pair’s discussions a day earlier, which had centered on the expiry of the moratorium.
“The prime minister understands what our policies are. We understand his ongoing political difficulties,” Crowley said.
“We believe he’s sincerely interested in the process, recognises its importance.”
Netanyahu’s refusal to renew the moratorium has thrown the peace talks into jeopardy and has drawn widespread international criticism, including from the US, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations.
The Palestinians have previously called on Israel to extend the moratorium for three to four months so that the two sides can reach an agreement on final borders that would clarify where Israel can continue building.
Netanyahu has refused to renew the partial freeze, but has urged Abbas to stick with the talks, which were relaunched after a 20-month hiatus.
Mitchell was meanwhile on his way to the region late Monday, Crowley said.
“We recognise that given the decision yesterday we still have a dilemma to resolve,” he said. “One way or the other the parties have to find a way to continue direct negotiations.
He praised Abbas for not immediately backing out of the negotiations, saying his “restraint at this point is appreciated.”
Israel’s hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, said Palestinian negotiators had “wasted time” during the settlement moratorium but added that it was important to “keep the political process alive.”
For “nine months the Palestinians wasted time and completely refused to accept this gesture and accused Israel that it’s a fraud, it’s not serious,” Lieberman said after meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“And today they are exerting pressure to maintain the same moratorium that they previously rejected,” he told reporters in New York.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, called on Abbas to stand by his threat to end the negotiations, which the Islamist movement has always vehemently rejected.
“I call on my brothers at the Palestinian Authority, who had stated they would not pursue talks with the enemy (Israel) if it continued settlement construction, to hold to their promise,” its exiled chief Khaled Mishal said.
Construction was under way in several settlements across the West Bank, but there was no major building taking place, in part because of the Sukkot holiday, during which Jews are not supposed to work.
And just before the freeze ended, Netanyahu urged settlers to display “restraint and responsibility.”
The Palestinians have long deplored the presence of 500,000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, lands expected to form the bulk of a future Palestinian state.
The international community views all settlements as illegal.