TEL AVIV // More than two dozen former European heads of state and other prominent figures have joined in a rare public call for the European Union to impose sanctions against Israel and pressure the country to halt its Jewish settlement expansion.
The call appeared to be a major boost to the Palestinian demand for Israel to curtail its growth of settlements in the occupied West Bank before direct peace negotiations are resumed.
The initiative came as the White House announced yesterday that Barack Obama would "remain engaged" in the peace talks despite the US saying this week that it had failed to convince Israel to implement a three-month settlement freeze to help revive negotiations.
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, was scheduled to give a speech outlining a new strategy that would be adopted by the US to rescue the Middle East peace process.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, the Arab League chief, Amr Moussa, made a joint statement with the Australian foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, calling for direct peace talks to resume immediately.
They expressed their "strong support for a comprehensive, just and sustainable peace in the Middle East allowing both Israel and a future Palestinian state to live side by side in peace and security".
The European figures include Romano Prodi and Felipe Gonzales, the former Italian and Spanish prime ministers, respectively, as well as Javier Solana, the former EU policy chief, and Richard Von Weizsacker, the former German president.
The group, which met in London in mid-November, sent a letter on Thursday to the EU's leadership and the governments of the bloc's 27 member states, criticising Israel's settlement policy, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday.
The letter urged the EU to freeze an anticipated upgrade of relations and any other expected bilateral agreements with Israel unless the country suspends its settlement activities. It also called on the bloc to announce that it will reject any unilateral changes that were made by Israel to the borders of the West Bank after the country took over the territory in the 1967 war.
The initiative bolstered escalating Palestinian efforts to advance international recognition of an independent Palestinian state without reaching an agreement with Israel. Haaretz said that the letter proposed that a Palestinian state cover the same size as the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, with only minor land swaps, and with a capital in East Jerusalem.
Earlier this week, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay formally said they would support the establishment of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders and other Latin American countries appear likely to follow. Israel has reacted angrily, saying that bids to force it to accept an accord were counterproductive to the peace process.
Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians were launched on September 2. They were suspended after three rounds of negotiations when Israel rejected the Palestinians' demand to extend a 10-month settlement freeze that expired on September 26.
Mrs Clinton was due yesterday to meet with Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, and Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister. She was expected to cap the session of talks with an evening speech at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, where analysts said she was likely to stress that the US administration has not surrendered on its bid to trigger direct talks and that it would continue to push for a peace deal.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, said on Thursday after holding discussions in Cairo with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, that the Palestinian conditions for peace talks - most significantly, a settlement freeze - still stood. The Arab League's committee that deals with the negotiations and which helps guides the Palestinians' approach to them is due to meet next week.
US diplomats have said in recent days that they hope they could make sufficient progress in separate talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians on issues relating to future security arrangements - a priority for Mr Netanyahu - and on setting a final border - a key Palestinian demand.
EU officials have been open in their criticism of Israel's settlement policy. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said on Thursday that "recent settlement-related developments, including in East Jerusalem, contradict efforts by the international community for successful negotiations."
Israel has played down the settlements' importance in the peace talks. Mr Barak, speaking to reporters in New York late on Thursday after meeting with Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, said that during his premiership in 1999-2001, settlement growth was four times faster than the current pace even as he conducted peace talks with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
He added that during the term of Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, whose government held more than a year of talks with the Palestinians, settlement construction was twice as fast as the current rate.
"Israel has been in the West Bank for the past 43 years, and until now settlements do not cover even two per cent of the territory," he said.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse