Palestinians will reject any deal between Israel and the US that would allow even limited Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, a top Palestinian negotiator said yesterday.
“There are no middle-ground solutions for the settlement issue: Either settlement activity stops or it doesn’t stop,” Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio.
Erekat said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed that message in a letter on Saturday to US President Barack Obama.
Erekat was responding to reports that Israel and the US were discussing a compromise that would allow some building in existing settlements under what Israel terms “natural growth” to accommodate expanding families.
A US official denied on Wednesday a report in the Israeli daily Maariv that the Obama administration agreed work could continue on 2,500 housing units whose construction had begun, despite its call for a total freeze to spur peace efforts.
The report followed talks in London last week between George Mitchell, Obama’s special Middle East envoy and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak aimed at healing a rift over continued settlement activity.
The US State Department said Mitchell was expected in the region “soon” for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Barak has been seeking a deal with the US that would include initial steps by Arab states to normalize relations with Israel in return for limiting settlement activity.
Palestinians have said they would not revive stalled peace talks with Israel unless its settlement activities stopped.
“If settlement continues Israel will be allowed to build one thousand units here and two thousand units there, which will lead Arabs and Palestinians to believe that the American administration is incapable of swaying Israel to halt its settlement activities,” Erekat said.
“The message is clear: settlements should stop immediately,” he said.
Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war. Palestinians say Jewish settlements, deemed illegal by the World Court, would deny them a viable and contiguous state.
Western officials said the US was moving in the direction of making allowances so Israel could finish off at least some existing projects which are close to completion or bound by private contracts that cannot be broken.
Israel estimates that 2,500 units are in the process of being built and cannot be stopped under Israeli law.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under US pressure, has pledged not to build new settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu yesterday called on Abbas to meet him to restart stalled Middle East peace negotiations.
“I say to the leader of the Palestinian Authority, let’s meet to reach a political and economic peace,” Netanyahu said at the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The hawkish premier has previously called on the Palestinians to revive peace talks that were relaunched in November 2007, but suspended after Israel launched its three-week war on Gaza in late December.
The Palestinians have said they would not resume talks unless Israel freezes all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank in line with US demands, something that Netanyahu has so far refused to do.
Yesterday’s Cabinet meeting was held in the desert town of Beersheva rather than Jerusalem to show the government’s commitment to development in the Negev desert.