CAIRO (AP) — Egypt backed the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it continues to build West Bank settlements, even as officials on Sunday urged continued diplomacy to salvage the month-old talks.
U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the impasse ahead of an Arab League meeting this week at which the Palestinians are expected to deliver a final decision on whether to continue talks following Israel’s decision a week ago to allow a curb on settlement building to expire.
Mr. Mitchell then traveled to Jordan, where he is expected to meet with King Abdullah II.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said there is no point negotiating as long as settlements are eating up the land the Palestinians want for a future state. On Saturday, senior Palestinian officials backed Mr. Abbas’ refusal and said they now are considering alternatives to the direct negotiations if Israel doesn’t budge.
Following Mr. Mitchell’s meeting with Mr. Mubarak, Egypt’s foreign minister said the Palestinian position is understandable.
“We understand the Palestinian position, which calls for setting the appropriate environment and circumstances for negotiations to take place and continue,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. “The current conditions are not favorable.”
Mr. Aboul Gheit said the focus now should be on continued U.S. and international efforts to pressure Israel into agreeing to extend the settlement moratorium.
The first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in two years were launched last month in Washington. The two sides then met face to face in Egypt and Jerusalem, but disagreements over the settlement construction curb derailed the negotiations, which are to address the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Now, Mr. Mitchell is back to speaking separately with all the parties and consulting regional players to save the floundering process.
“We knew when we began these efforts that there will be a lot of difficulties and obstacles,” Mr. Mitchell said after meeting with Mr. Mubarak. “Despite the differences, both the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority asked us to continue these discussions and efforts.
“They both want to continue those negotiations,” he added.
However, Saturday’s unanimous decision by dozens of senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement makes compromise increasingly unlikely.
“There will be no negotiations as long as settlement building continues,” senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said after the three-hour meeting at Mr. Abbas’ headquarters.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is serious about reaching a deal within a year and has accused the Palestinians of wasting precious time over secondary issues.
Palestinian leaders said they now will begin to study alternatives, should talks collapse, and step up efforts to reconcile with the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force from Mr. Abbas in 2007. The Islamic militant group repeatedly has called on the Palestinian leader to quit the talks, saying they were futile.
On Sunday, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, praised the decision to refuse to negotiate while settlement construction continued, saying Palestinian national reconciliation should take precedent.
But Mr. Haniyeh also stressed that the decision “must be followed up to show that it is not just a tactic but is a genuine desire to … work according to a unified national agenda.”
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