A senior Palestinian official on Thursday rejected US moves to extend an April deadline for nine months of hard-won talks with Israel to culminate in a framework peace deal.
“There is no meaning to prolonging the negotiation, even for one more additional hour, if Israel, represented by its current government, continues to disregard international law,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
“If there was a committed partner, we wouldn't even have needed nine hours to reach that deal,” he said.
He was responding to comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that more time would be needed and that he hoped first to agree a framework to guide further talks.
It was Kerry who coaxed the two sides back to the negotiating table in late July, after a three-year hiatus.
“Then we get into the final negotiations. I don't think anybody would worry if there's another nine months, or whatever it's going to be... But that's not defined yet,” he said.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said last month that he expected the timeframe to be lengthened.
“We are now trying to reach a framework to continue negotiations for a period beyond the nine months some thought would suffice for reaching a permanent accord,” he said.
US President Barack Obama is to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next week when he is expected to renew pressure on his guest to rein in the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, that has threatened to drive the Palestinians away from the negotiating table.
Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot reported on Thursday that Netanyahu's cabinet had quietly begun a de facto freeze on expanding settlements outside the major Jewish population centres.
The paper said that the move was revealed to a West Bank settler leader in a conversation with Cabinet Secretary Avihai Mandelblit.
“We've received instructions from the political level not to move ahead on (construction) plans beyond those for the settlement blocs,” it quoted Mandelblit as telling Jordan Valley settler David Elhayani.
Israeli army radio reported last week that Washington was expected to demand a partial settlement freeze when Kerry unveils his formula for extending the peace talks.
Israel has so far resisted persistent pressure from its key ally to renew a one-time, 10-month partial freeze on new West Bank building, which expired in late 2010, contributing to the collapse of the last round of peace talks.
A moratorium is fiercely opposed by hardline partners in Netanyahu's fractious coalition and by many in his own right-wing Likud party.
“We shall not freeze construction,” Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home party said last week.
“There is no way the prime minister would order that there will be no tenders issued outside the settlement blocs,” he said.
Both the Palestinians and the international community consider all Israeli construction on land it seized in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law.
Right-wing Israeli MPs rounded on US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro this week, accusing Washington of pro-Palestinian bias in the peace talks.
A recording of the closed-door meeting was leaked to media, prompting an apology from the MPs - for the leak rather than the sentiments expressed.
Shapiro has, in fact, publicly supported the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish state, a demand vigorously opposed by the Palestinians, who said after talks between Kerry and Abbas in Paris last week that the secretary of state's proposals were unacceptable.
“The ideas proposed cannot be accepted by the Palestinian side as the basis for a framework accord between the Palestinians and Israel as they do not take into account the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” a Palestinian official told AFP on Friday.
The Palestinians fear that recognising Israel as a Jewish state would prejudice the right of return they claim for Palestinian refugees as well as the rights of Arab Israelis.