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Palestinians reject partial Israeli settlement freeze

US President Barack Obama sided with Israel's position during a visit to the region last week, saying the Palestinians should return to talks to sort out the settlement issue.

RAMALLAH // A senior Palestinian official yesterday rejected the idea of a partial Israeli settlement freeze as a way of restarting peace talks, a sign of tough times ahead for the Obama administration's new attempt to bring the sides together.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, separately met the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Saturday to talk about ending a deadlock of more than four years over settlements.

Mr Abbas says he won't return to negotiations without an Israeli construction freeze, saying Israel's building on war-won land pre-empts the outcome of talks on a border between Israel and a future state of Palestine. Mr Abbas last held talks with Mr Netanyahu's predecessor in late 2008.

Mr Netanyahu has refused to halt construction and instead calls for an immediate return to negotiations. President Barack Obama sided with Israel's position during a visit to the region last week, saying the Palestinians should return to talks to sort out the settlement issue.

The US has not spoken publicly about possible compromises in recent days, though there has been some speculation it would propose a partial construction stop in the West Bank heartland, east of Israel's separation barrier.

The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday that the Palestinians do not seek a confrontation with the Obama administration, but appeared to suggest that nothing short of a full freeze will bring them back to negotiations.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967. Since that war, Israel has built dozens of settlements - considered illegal by much of the world and now home to more than half a million Israelis - in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Much of the construction takes place in so-called "settlement blocs" close to Israel and in east Jerusalem. Israel's separation barrier cuts off east Jerusalem and some of the settlement blocs from the rest of the West Bank.

Asked if Mr Abbas would accept a partial freeze, east of the barrier, Mr Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio: "Absolutely not. It is rejected."

"First of all, 90 per cent of the building in settlements is going on in the blocs," he said. "If we accepted that, we would be committing two crimes. The first is legalising what is illegal, which is settlement construction, and the second is accepting the Israeli policy (of) dictation."

Israel agreed to a 10-month slowdown in settlement construction early in Mr Obama's first term, allowing talks to resume briefly in 2010. The talks fizzled out after Mr Netanyahu refused to extend the slowdown, which had halted approvals for new homes but allowed previously started construction to continue.

Mr Erekat said the Palestinians would wait for two to three months to see if the Obama administration can come up with a way out of the deadlock. "We want to cooperate with the US administration, not clash with it," he said.

If the deadlock persists, the Palestinians will move ahead with their quest for international recognition, he said. "We have to focus on the steadfastness of our people, and we have 63 international agencies we can join," he said.

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