WASHINGTON – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants the Bush administration to press Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank — a step he says is needed to make progress in Mideast peace talks.
Those talks are bogged down five months after both sides pledged to reach a deal by January.
In a meeting Wednesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ahead of talks with President Bush on Thursday, Abbas said time was running out if that target laid out at the Annapolis Conference in November was to be met and that more pressure must be exerted on Israel to stop the expansion of West Bank settlements, according to the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Speaking later to the Arab-American Institute, Abbas said: "We are serious in having a serious negotiations to reach an agreement by the end of the year, but the gaps are still wide between us and the Israelis."
Halting Israeli expansion in the West Bank is a major component of the so-called roadmap blueprint for peace.
"I am telling you frankly that the most important obstacle to the peace process and the negotiations is the continuation of the settlement activities," Abbas said in his speech. "Therefore, I am calling on the Israeli government to stop all settlement activities so we can hold proper meetings to reach a solution on the core issues."
Abbas aides said he had pressed Rice for U.S. action on the matter.
Abbas, who is struggling for authority in the West Bank against the militant Hamas movement that controls Gaza, wants a framework peace agreement by January with timetables and specifics leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and not just a "declaration of principles" as suggested by some Israeli officials. He has said his talks with Bush will focus on achieving a real deal on core issues and not just promises.
Bush also met with Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday. The White House meetings were a prelude to next month's trip by Bush to the Middle East to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. He also was expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Bush hopes to achieve a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel before he leaves office in January.
The administration had been holding out hope it could arrange a peace summit during the president's Mideast trip, perhaps at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where Bush is set to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The idea was to have Arab leaders endorse an interim statement demonstrating at least some progress, officials said.
But there are deep misgivings about such a meeting among both Arabs and the Israelis, given the slow pace of negotiations, and prospects for the summit are slim, officials said.
The core issues remain the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, disputed Israeli settlements, refugees, water and future relations between the two states.