Middle East peace talks: Settlement row 'crisis'

Reaction from Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev and Palestinian official Ghassan Khatib

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas says Middle East peace talks are in crisis following Israel's refusal to stop building in settlements.

His comments come hours after the US said that it had failed to get Israel to renew its settlement curbs.

Mr Abbas suspended talks in September after a 10-month halt on Israeli building in the occupied West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, expired.

The US has vowed to find other ways to bring the two sides together.

The peace talks resumed in Washington in September after a break of almost two years, but broke down just weeks later over the settlement issue.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

US sweeteners

Speaking on a visit to Athens, the Palestinian Authority president said there was "no doubt" that the peace talks were in crisis, the AFP news agency reported.

Washington announced on Tuesday that it had abandoned efforts to persuade Israel to renew its settlement freeze, but said that this did not mean the end of US efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has released a statement saying Israel was still fully committed to direct peace talks with the Palestinians without pre-conditions, and that all issues, including the status of East Jerusalem, were on the table.

Israeli settlements on Palestinian land

  • 485,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, alongside 2.5 million Palestinians
  • 12 settlements in East Jerusalem and 121 others in the West Bank, covering 40% of the territory
  • Another 100 settlement "outposts" not authorised by the Israeli government in the West Bank

Source: 2008 official statistics compiled by Btselem

But it is now clear that after weeks of trying, the Israeli prime minister has failed to get his fractious coalition to support a new settlement freeze in the West Bank, says the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Jerusalem.

The US government tried extremely hard to persuade right-wingers in Mr Netanyahu's cabinet that it was in their interest, even offering to give Israel 20 F-35 stealth fighters for free as an inducement, but its attempt failed, our correspondent says.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are now due in Washington for separate talks with American negotiators.

'Credibility tarnished'

Senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told the BBC that direct peace talks with Israel would not resume until it changed its position on settlements.

Mr Shaath said that American credibility as a mediator had been tarnished by its failure to negotiate a freeze.

"[The failure] no doubt tarnishes their credibility about their ability to implement permanent settlement negotiations, but I think many options remain on the table for the United States and for us," he said.

Mr Shaath said the Palestinian leadership would seek out international support for Palestinian statehood until the Americans decided on "a more serious step to get the Israelis to comply".

But the former British prime minister and envoy of the Middle East Quartet, Tony Blair, said the US decision was a "sensible" one which would allow negotiators to step back and re-evaluate the situation.

"I would not take that in any way as a diminution of anyone's intention to get things going," he told the BBC. "It remains the fixed resolution of everyone to make sure that we put this back together in a way that's going to allow us to succeed."

Israel has occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 1967, settling close to 500,000 Jews in more than 120 settlements.

Map: West Bank showing settlements and restricted areas

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