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Palestinians say full settlement freeze is precondition to new peace talks

A lead Palestinian peace negotiator says the demand for a full settlement freeze – not a partial one – is a precondition to resuming peace talks. But a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas is still possible in September.

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Mrs. Merkel, meanwhile, appeared to insist that a full halt to settlement expansion – which has also been the public position of the Obama administration – was a necessary step toward restarting negotiations. "Stopping of the settlement [building] is very important," Merkel said. "Time is of the essence."

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Land and settlements

Roughly 500,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem and West Bank in settlements built since those areas were occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. The growth of those settlements, on what the international community deems to be Palestinian land, is a major deterrent to peace. The Palestinians say their growth has been used to fragment their own population and make the viability of a future state less tenable.

Mr. Erakat didn't rule out a possible meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu on the sidelines of next month's UN General Assembly meeting in New York, though he wouldn't confirm one either. Erakat said only that he "remains hopeful."

Nevertheless, signs continued to grow that the Obama administration is planning a major announcement of renewed talks sometime this fall.

"It's very clear that [the Obama administration] will make some sort of announcement on the resumption of negotiations," said an Arab diplomat in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity. He expected the announcement to come at the September General Assembly meeting, possibly accompanied by a meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas.

The diplomat said the proposed agreement will also include unspecified steps toward normalization from some Arab countries including Morocco, Qatar, and several smaller Gulf states. He said, as he understands it, that the US is willing to push for harsher action on Iran in exchange for a partial settlement freeze. "What's new about this is the linkage with the Iran sanctions," the diplomat said.

Arab disagreement

If accurate, the proposal would be widely regarded in the Arab world as a significant American concession to Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, analysts and observers here said.

"This will be a fake peace process," says Cairo University political science professor Hassan Nafaa. "What we need is not another process."

Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have pressed Mr. Obama for an accelerated timetable toward final status negotiations, meaning the firm contours of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has favored an incremental approach that delays difficult issues, such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees living in countries such as Lebanon, and the status of Jerusalem, which Israel insists is its "eternal capital."

If Obama is in fact acceding to a gradual process, he will essentially be siding with the Israelis from the very start, Professor Nafaa says.