Israel PM blames Palestinians for stalled peace efforts

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JERUSALEM: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has infuriated Washington by expanding settlements in east Jerusalem, on Sunday blamed the Palestinians for blocking US peace efforts.

His remarks came after the Palestinians reiterated their refusal to hold even indirect talks without a complete settlement freeze and in the wake of a flare-up of violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

"We continue to see that the Palestinians are hardening their positions. They do not show any sign of moderation," Netanyahu said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday ruled out holding even indirect talks with Israel unless it freezes settlement construction in the West Bank including mostly Arab east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967.

"We cannot resume indirect negotiations as long as Israel maintains its settlement policy and the status quo," the Western-backed leader said at the opening of a two-day Arab summit in the Libyan city of Sirte.

"There won’t be any (peace) agreement that does not guarantee an end to the occupation, starting with Jerusalem, because there is no sense in having a Palestinian state that does not have Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

Netanyahu said the annual meeting, which this year is aimed in large part at condemning Israeli policies in the Holy City, was unlikely to support US-led efforts to revive negotiations suspended over a year ago.

"I do not think that the discussions by the Arab League can support this process, but we will show restraint and continue our contacts with the Americans in order to restart the talks," he said.

The impasse over the negotiations comes amid a surge of violence in the Gaza Strip, where two Israeli soldiers and, according to medics, one Palestinian, were killed on Friday in the deadliest clashes since Israel’s 22-day war on Hamas ended in January 2009.

Another Palestinian was killed when tanks moved into the same area the following day, and witnesses said Israeli forces were conducting a limited operation there on Sunday, though no clashes or casualties were reported.

A minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party meanwhile warned that Israel would eventually "liquidate" Gaza’s Hamas rulers, who seized control of the territory after routing Abbas’s forces in June 2007.

"Sooner or later we will liquidate the military regime of the pro-Iranian Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip," Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said.

"I am not setting a timetable, but we will not tolerate this regime continuing to strengthen itself militarily," he told Israeli public radio.
Earlier this month Abbas reluctantly agreed to US-mediated indirect talks with Israel but the planned negotiations collapsed two days later when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.

The project set off a major diplomatic crisis with the United States and provoked criticism of Netanyahu from Israelis fearful that the dispute could hinder international efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear drive, which Israel views as its greatest threat.

A minister from the center-left Labor party said it would meet next week to discuss quitting the otherwise rightwing coalition, a move that would leave Netanyahu with a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Netanyahu has refused to halt construction in mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel views as part of its "eternal, undivided" capital. No other government recognizes its claim to the eastern part of the city.

Netanyahu imposed a 10-month halt on new construction in the West Bank in November, but the move was rejected by the Palestinians because it did not include east Jerusalem, public buildings, and projects already under way.

A half million Israelis live in more than 120 settlements in the occupied territories, including some 200,000 Jews living in east Jerusalem alongside around 270,000 Arabs.

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