Middle East

Palestinian leadership delays decision on peace talks

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Media captionThe BBC's Jon Donnison on the extent of Israeli construction work

The Palestinian Authority president says there will be no quick decision on whether to continue talks with Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas said he would respond to Israel's lifting the ban on building in West Bank settlements after next week's meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo.

On Sunday, he had warned talks renewed earlier this month would be a "waste of time" unless the ban continued.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed disappointment at Israel's "provocative" actions.

The 10-month moratorium came to an end at midnight (2200 GMT on Sunday).

Bulldozers started levelling ground for 50 homes in the settlement of Ariel in the northern West Bank, Israeli media reported, and similar activity was also reported in the settlements of Adam and Oranit. But construction work was expected to be slow because of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

With peace negotiations in the balance, Mr Abbas is in a difficult position and he may be forced to compromise, says the BBC's Jon Donnison in Ramallah.

Under pressure from the United States, there are signs Palestinian negotiators may accept the moratorium on building is not officially going to be extended, as long as no major construction takes place in the coming weeks and months, our correspondent adds.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Middle East war of 1967, settling some 500,000 Jews in more than 100 settlements which are held to be illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this. About 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.

'Right decision'

Speaking at a Paris press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Abbas said he would discuss the settlement issue with Palestinian negotiators in Ramallah on Wednesday, and the 22-member Arab League in Cairo next Monday.

"After all these meetings we may be able to issue a position to clarify what is the Palestinian and Arab opinion on this matter, after Israel has refused to freeze settlements," he said.

Mr Sarkozy said he deplored Israel's failure to extend the freeze, adding he would tell Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu in a scheduled telephone conversation that he had to do more.

As the moratorium expired, Mr Netanyahu called on the Palestinians to continue peace talks, which recently resumed after a 20-month pause and have the strong backing of US President Barack Obama.

He made no direct mention of the issue of the settlement freeze, but maintained that it was possible "to achieve a historic framework accord within a year".

"Israel is ready to pursue continuous contacts in the coming days to find a way to continue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," he said.

He had earlier urged settlers "to display restraint and responsibility".

If in the next few days Palestinian leaders see the extent of construction in the West Bank has been limited, that might be enough to keep them at the table, says our correspondent.

Some Jewish settlers celebrated the end of the construction ban. At the settlement of Revava, near the Palestinian town of Deir Itsia, they released balloons and broke ground for a new nursery school before the moratorium expired.

Hamas call

Meanwhile, the exiled head of Hamas - the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip - called on Mr Abbas to quit the peace talks.

"I call on my brothers at the Palestinian Authority, who had stated they would not pursue talks with the enemy if it continued settlement construction, to hold to their promise," said Khaled Meshaal from his headquarters in Syria.

"To negotiate without a position of strength is absurd."

Hamas, which is strongly opposed to peace talks with Israel, seized control of Gaza in December 2007, ousting Fatah forces loyal to Mr Abbas.

The rival groups held reconciliation talks in Damascus on Friday and said they wanted them to continue.

The US earlier renewed calls for Israel to maintain the construction freeze, saying its position on the issue remained unchanged and the US state department was staying "in close touch" with all parties.

It is estimated that about 2,000 housing units in the West Bank already have approval and settler leaders said they planned to resume construction as soon as possible.

The partial moratorium on new construction was agreed by Israel in November 2009 under pressure from Washington.

It banned construction in the West Bank, but never extended the ban to settlements in East Jerusalem.

US President Barack Obama has urged Israel to extend the moratorium, saying it "made a difference on the ground, and improved the atmosphere for talks".

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