US against settlement halt as precondition for talks

The U.S. ambassador to Israel reaffirmed on Tuesday Washington’s opposition to a Palestinian call to halt Israeli settlement building before peace negotiations can resume.

Facing renewed urging from international mediators to return to negotiations and defuse a row over his bid for a full seat at the United Nations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeated his demand for a settlement freeze first.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Tuesday that he was not about to offer one.

U.S. envoy Dan Shapiro said Washington had never favoured making a freeze a condition for negotiations: “We’ve never set that, in this administration or any other, as a precondition for talks,” he told Israeli Army Radio, in response to a question on whether he favoured the Palestinian demand.

Separately, Netanyahu signalled that another moratorium on construction in settlements in the West Bank, following a 10-month partial cessation that ended last September, was not on the cards.

“We already gave at the office,” Netanyahu said in an interview in The Jerusalem Post, a phrase meaning that he believed he had done enough last year.

Shapiro noted that the United States has long opposed Israeli settlement in the West Bank, territory captured in a 1967 war and where, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Palestinians want to establish a state of their own.

But he added: “What we have said consistently is that we believe direct talks are the only way to resolve this conflict, and (it) can only be resolved by the parties themselves in those talks, and they should be entered without preconditions.”

In New York on Monday, a divided U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors for its first discussion of last week’s Palestinian application for full U.N. membership as a state—a move seen as certain to fail due to Israeli and U.S. opposition, despite substantial support among other world governments.

Abbas repeated, on his return home from the United Nations on Sunday, his refusal to resume talks with Israel without a settlement freeze.

International mediators, trying to salvage the Middle East peace process, have urged preliminary negotiations be held within a month.

U.S.-brokered talks collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend the partial construction freeze he had ordered under pressure from Washington to coax Abbas into talks.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alastair Macdonald