JERUSALEM // Days after Benjamin Netanyahu insisted negotiations were the only path to peace with the Palestinians, the Israeli prime minister's government yesterday stalled on the latest plan to resume talks.
Meeting until the early hours of yesterday morning, Mr Netanyahu and eight senior cabinet members could not agree to accept a proposal by the US, EU, Russia and the UN for an immediate resumption of direct talks.
The Middle East Quartet made the proposal last week as an alternative to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. Their plan meets Mr Netanyahu's one condition for resuming talks, in that it contains no reference to the Palestinian demands that illegal settlement building must cease before negotiations resume based on 1967 borders.
The hesitation on the Quartet proposal is in stark contrast with the Israeli leader's enthusiastic call for peace negotiations in his address last Friday at the UN General Assembly. In it, he demanded that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, "stop negotiating about the negotiations. Let's just get on with it. Let's negotiate peace".
Mr Netanyahu spoke positively of the Quartet plan in a television interview on Saturday: "If the Quartet calls for the resumption of direct negotiations without preconditions, I think it's an important thing."
His government's willingness to compromise with the Palestinians was cast into further doubt by an announcement on Tuesday that 1,100 new homes will be built in Israel's East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. That prompted an immediate chorus of international condemnation, followed yesterday by similar expressions of concern by Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Amr.
He called it an "illegal measure" that "represents a new and glaring Israeli defiance to the international community, which endeavours to restore credibility to the peace process".
Israel under Mr Netanyahu's leadership has made a number of provocatively timed announcements on settlement construction that have caught its allies in the US government off guard, most notably soon after a visit by the US vice president, Joe Biden, last year. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called Israel's decision to build in East Jerusalem a"counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties".
"As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side," she said.
Mrs Clinton and the US president, Barack Obama, have struggled to renew the peace talks that collapsed late last year because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop building Jewish settlements. Washington's influence on the Middle East peace process appears to be diminishing, evidenced by the Palestinians' defiance of US pressure not to approach the UN Security Council for recognition of their state.
The US and other Quartet nations hope their new proposal would lure Mr Abbas back to negotiations and away from the Security Council. Unveiled just before the Palestinian leader's UN address on Friday, the proposal calls on Israel and the Palestinians to begin tentative talks in four weeks, set out proposals on borders and security in three months and then conclude a final peace deal by the end of next year.
This is hoped to prevent an embarrassing confrontation in the Security Council with the administration of Barack Obama, who has vowed to veto the Palestinian statehood vote should it reach the Security Council.
Officials in the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Executive Committee held deliberations yesterday on the new Quartet initiative, but a source said it would probably be rejected because it failed to address key demands for resuming talks. Those consist of Israel halting construction on Jewish settlements and agreeing to use the borders existing before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a basis for negotiations.
Senior Palestinian officials declined to comment on the issue yesterday but were expected to announce their opposition to the proposal today.
Speaking in front of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, B Lynn Pascoe, the world body's political chief, expressed doubt that the Quartet proposal would be enough to bridge the two sides' differences.
Warning that "resuming negotiations, and making progress, is easier said than done", he said Israel's occupation and the Hamas-Fatah split were major factors that could thwart a negotiated end to the conflict.
The Quartet proposal, he said, "would be a moment where the parties would be truly tested in their readiness to make serious proposals that addressed the core concerns of the other".
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press