‘No peace talks without settlement freeze’

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iol pic wld palestinian prez abbas AFP Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. File picture: Alain Jocard

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will not extend peace talks with Israel beyond April without further prisoner releases and a halt to settlement construction, Israeli and Palestinian sources said on Tuesday.

The US-brokered talks, which began in July for a nine-month period that ends late April, have faltered in part because of Israel's continued construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who brought the sides back to the negotiating table after a three-year hiatus, said last month that more time would be needed to reach an agreement to end decades of conflict, and that he hoped to clinch a framework by April to guide further talks.

“We cannot continue negotiations with ongoing settlement construction,” Mohammad al-Madani, a member of the Fatah central committee, quoted the Palestinian president as saying during a meeting with a leftwing Israeli politician.

Abbas met Zehava Galon, head of the Meretz party, in his Ramallah headquarters on Monday.

A statement from Galon's office said that in addition to a settlement freeze, Abbas would also demand a release of “further prisoners beyond the next tranche, including women, youths and administrative detainees.”

Israel committed in July to releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners in four tranches. It has so far released 78 of those in three batches.

Abbas also told Galon that “if the American framework agreement will not sufficiently address the fundamental principles of the core issues, we won't enable extending the negotiations,” according to the statement.

Core issues in the talks include borders, security, Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The Abbas-Galon meeting took place just before US President Barack Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington.

Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington may demand a partial settlement freeze to try and ensure the Palestinians remain at the negotiating table.

But such demands have not been put to the Israeli side yet, according to Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz.

“I think these things are not even on the agenda,” he told public radio, in response to a question about Palestinian demands to freeze settlement construction and release further prisoners.

Pro-settlement Housing Minister Uri Ariel, of the far-right Jewish Home party, said he was not “concerned” by the idea of a settlement freeze, pointing out that “the prime minister has announced there wouldn't be one.” - AFP



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