x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Arab League agrees one month to save Palestine talks

Bloc backs Abbas in calling for halt to West Bank construction but gives US breathing room to continue pressure on Israel.

SIRTE // Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Libya threw their weight behind the Palestinian president's refusal to negotiate with Israel unless it renews restrictions on West Bank settlement construction, but gave US mediators another month to keep peace talks from collapsing. 

The grace period, agreed to last night at a meeting of the 22-member Arab bloc in the Libyan city of Sirte, gave the US some critical breathing room but also came with a warning to Israel of the dangerous consequences should it refuse to compromise.

Washington welcomed the outcome and pledged to forge ahead with efforts to keep both sides at the table in talks that began just over a month ago. They are the first direct Middle East peace talks in nearly two years, but they quickly faced a huge hurdle with the expiration of a 10-month Israeli moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements. Israel has refused to extend the curbs, though it is considering compromises. The Palestinians have said they will not return to the talks until the restrictions are again in place, arguing that any negotiations aimed at a two-state solution are pointless as long as Israel is building on land claimed by the Palestinians.

The Arab League's deputy secretary general, Ahmad Bin Helli, said: "We support the Palestinian president's position calling for a complete halt of all settlement activities in order to resume negotiation." But the ministers also said they would resume meetings in a month to study alternatives and decide on next steps, giving the United States extra time. 

The chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace talks, Saeb Erekat, sought to keep the pressure on Israel. "The Israeli government was given the choice between peace and settlements, and it has chosen settlements," Mr Erekat said. "It [Israel] alone bears the responsibility for this." The Israeli government had no immediate comment on the Arab League statement. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has refused to renew the construction curbs for fear of angering his hard-line coalition partners and reneging on his own explicit promises that the slowdown was a one-time gesture and would last only 10 months.

Officials in Washington said the Arab League has made clear its support for continued US efforts to create the conditions necessary for keeping the negotiations going. "We appreciate the Arab League's statement of support for our efforts to create conditions that will allow direct talks to move forward," the State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said. "We will continue to work with the parties, and all our international partners, to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that end."

Direct US-backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began on September 2, after several months of indirect contacts, but subsequently stalled over the settlement dispute. Aides said the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, wanted to avoid the impression that he was quitting the talks, and instead sought to buy more time for US diplomacy. A senior Abbas aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said: "The US effort should continue to safeguard what remains of the peace process."

Delegates at yesterday's meeting said the ministers made their decision after Mr Abbas explained that he faced stiff opposition to returning to the peace talks in the Palestinian territories. They also said some of yesterday's discussions centered on the need to delay a final decision until US congressional elections in early November so that President Obama's administration would not face as much political pressure.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, called Arab leaders throughout the week, urging them to persuade the Palestinians not to walk away from the talks. Yesterday's statement came despite a proposal by moderate Arab nations led by Egypt and Jordan for Mr Abbas to return to indirect talks. Some hard-line Arab states, including Syria, opposed any attempt to go back to the talks.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al Moallem, who stayed away from the meeting and sent instead Syria's envoy to the Arab League, said: "I cannot see any benefit from this meeting." Lebanon boycotted the discussions altogether because of a dispute with Libya.