Mahmoud Abbas: Israel-Palestinian peace talks off unless new settlements canceled

PA President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that Israel-Palestinian peace talks are off unless Israel cancels 1,600 newly planned homes for East Jerusalem. US Vice President Biden encouraged talks to go forward.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
US Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) upon Biden's arrival in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday. Abbas said he would not move forward with proposed Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he would not move forward with proposed peace talks with Israel unless a newly announced settlement in East Jerusalem was canceled, according to Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

His decision brings the possibility of talks to a halt just four days after the two sides agreed to begin negotiations. It came after US envoy George Mitchell had worked for more than a year to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table, and during US Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Israel this week, embarrassing the Obama administration, which has made renewing peace talks a key goal.

"The most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go forward promptly and go forward in good faith," Biden said in a speech Thursday at Tel Aviv University.

But Secretary General Moussa said Mr. Abbas was not ready to negotiate “under the present circumstances,” Reuters reports. Israel’s Interior Ministry unexpectedly published plans Tuesday to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their territory and where they hope to establish the capital of their future state.

When Palestinians agreed to enter indirect talks for a four-month trial period, they effectively dropped their precondition that Israel freeze any settlements before talks could begin, The Christian Science Monitor reported. That fact made the timing of the new settlement announcement not only embarrassing for Biden but infuriating to the Palestinians.

Reuters reports that an aide to Abbas said he was waiting for Mr. Mitchell to return and convince the Israelis to reverse the settlement decision before beginning talks. But some Israeli politicians appear determined to go forward with building.

"Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and construction there will be carried out like in Tel Aviv or any other city – in every part of Jerusalem according to the plans," Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio.

Abbas’s announcement comes after a day of uncertainty over whether the settlement announcement would derail the talks. As the Monitor and The New York Times reported Wednesday, Palestinians stopped short of canceling the talks. That stance had apparently changed, however, by the time of Abbas’s meeting with Moussa today.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the timing of the announcement also came as a surprise to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who apologized to Biden. The paper reports that Mr. Netanyahu rebuked Interior Minister Eli Yishai Wednesday for the "wretched, displaced, insensitive" timing of the decision. Reuters reports the Interior minister is controlled by the ultraorthodox, nationalist Shas party, a member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Biden condemned the settlement decision, and Politico reports that he also changed the text of a speech he delivered Thursday to put more pressure on Israel.

What had originally been intended as “the big ‘show them the love’ speech," as one member of the American Jewish community in touch with the Obama administration put it, will now emphasize as well that Israel has to take more tangible steps toward peace.

“The speech was reworked yesterday,” an administration source said. While it’s mostly about the strength of the US- Israeli relationship, he said, “it also has the ‘but you have to do things yourselves for peace’ part – which is now stronger than it was before yesterday.”

The Jerusalem Post, nevertheless, titled its story: "Biden: The US has no better friend than Israel."

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