Abbas seeks U.S. answers before talking to Israel

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) speaks to the media after a  cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 15, 2010.  REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) speaks to the media after a cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday he was still waiting for the United States to explain how it might help restart peace talks before he will consider reopening those negotiations.

World

A senior aide to U.S. mediator George Mitchell will meet Abbas in the coming days, a senior U.S. official said.

Abbas has resisted U.S. and other Western pressure to resume negotiations with Israel which were suspended over a year ago. He has insisted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu impose a complete freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“We are still awaiting the American administration’s response regarding their proposals,” Abbas said of suggestions that Washington could host “proximity talks” involving officials, but not leaders, from the two sides as a way of preparing for a full-scale resumption of negotiations.

He accused Israel of obstructing a process which has failed to produce a negotiated settlement and a Palestinian state in nearly two decades of talking. Israel says Abbas should return to talks, a view shared by the United States and its allies.

Netanyahu, who says he is ready to talk without conditions, ordered a 10-month freeze on some settlement projects in much of the West Bank. But, in line with Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and its suburbs, he has refused to include building there in any settlement pause.

That annexation is not recognized internationally, and Washington and its allies have long urged Israel to comply with a commitment under the 2003, U.S.-brokered “road map” peace plan to halt the expansion of all settlements.

“SETTLEMENTS EXPANDED”

The Israeli lobby group Peace Now, which campaigns against the expansion of settlements and for a two-state solution to the conflict, said on Monday it had evidence building has continued — sometimes under cover of darkness — since Netanyahu’s declared freeze in 34 settlements, a quarter of the total.

Diplomats say efforts to resolve the conflict, which was complicated by the seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2007 by Abbas’s Islamist rivals Hamas, focus mainly on helping Abbas find face-saving ways to return to negotiations without securing the kind of settlement freeze that Netanyahu will not deliver.

Abbas noted that he would discuss any U.S. proposals with the Arab League. Diplomats say broader Arab backing for a return to talks with Israel would help Abbas make such a move, although few diplomats or regional officials hold high hopes of rapid progress toward a final settlement of the conflict.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Abbas, told Reuters on Monday: “We have told the Americans we are ready for proximity talks but we want answers to certain questions.”

Saying that Abbas had been waiting nearly three weeks for those answers, Abu Rdainah said Palestinians wanted to be sure that any talks would address all the “core issues” of the conflict. These are notably the establishment of state borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Some Israeli officials, as well as diplomats, have suggested phased negotiations where the borders of a Palestinian state might be agreed in advance of a resolution of other issues.

Abbas has said he does not want a partial or interim deal.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and in Ramallah, Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Arshad Mohammed in Doha; writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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