US ups ante ahead of Abbas-Obama meeting

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to meet with President Barack Obama Thursday as the new US administration steps up pressure on Israel to freeze settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with Abbas over dinner on Wednesday, reiterated Obama’s stance that Israel must halt settlement building after the US president told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month the practice must end.

Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,” Clinton said.

But Israel dismissed the blunt US call on Thursday.

“Normal life” will be allowed in settlements in the occupied West Bank, government spokesman Mark Regev said, using a euphemism for continuing construction to accommodate population growth.

And he added the fate of settlements “will be determined in final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and in the interim, normal life must be allowed to continue in those communities.”

Abbas will first meet one-on-one with Obama before an expanded meeting with other top Obama administration officials.

“We expect an active participation on the part of the United States that will translate into US pressure on Israel to stop its settlement activity and its provocations, and accept a two-state solution,” Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

The Palestinian Authority has ruled out restarting peace talks with Israel unless it removes all roadblocks and freezes settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu told Obama last week at their first White House meeting that he was willing to “immediately” relaunch the stalled Middle East peace process, but he has so far failed to publicly back the creation of a Palestinian state or to freeze settlement activity.

The Palestinian Authority welcomed Clinton’s statements, noting that a complete settlement freeze is part of terms of the US-backed roadmap, an international plan at the heart of peace negotiations since 2003.

“I hope the United States will also establish a mechanism to obligate the Israeli government to respect its engagements under roadmap, namely a complete halt to settlement activity,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Abbas, who arrived in Washington late on Tuesday, met World Bank president Robert Zoellick on Wednesday, on the eve of the bank releasing an additional $55-million in aid for the Palestinian Authority, according to Palestinian officials.

Abbas was also scheduled to meet with visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Abul Gheit, whose country is a key regional mediator, said without new negotiations, “the situation will worsen in this part of the world.”

The White House talks with Abbas come just 10 days after Obama met with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday he did not intend to build new settlements but that “it makes no sense to ask us not to answer to the needs of natural growth and to stop all construction,” aides said.

After the peace process was relaunched under US auspices in November 2007 in Annapolis, Maryland, Abbas and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert met more than 20 times but the negotiations, suspended since Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip in December and January, achieved no tangible results.

Abul Gheit and Suleiman were in Washington for talks arranged after President Hosni Mubarak cancelled a US visit over the death of his grandson last week.

Mubarak and Obama are still scheduled to meet in Egypt next week, when Obama is set to deliver a landmark speech in Cairo addressing Muslims.

The White House has sought to play down the scope of the address, saying it was “not intended to lay out some detailed map” for the peace process.

Obama will also travel to Saudi Arabia on June 3, on the eve of the speech, for talks with King Abdullah. — AFP

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