Middle East

Abbas Says Israeli Settlement Freeze Not Enough

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas dismissed an Israeli plan to halt new construction of West Bank settlements as insufficient on Friday, saying it won't be enough to restart peace talks.

The Palestinian president said during his first visit to Venezuela that "we can't accept the current Israeli government's concept for the negotiations."

Abbas said Wednesday's announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a 10-month halt to new construction in West Bank Jewish settlements "didn't bring anything new" because construction would continue in east Jerusalem and in the West Bank regardless of a freeze on new settlement building.

"The Israeli prime minister had to choose between peace and occupation," Abbas said in a speech to Venezuelan lawmakers. "Lamentably, he chose occupation."

Netanyahu's announcement came after U.S. pressure in an attempt to revive long-frozen peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. But Palestinians have demanded Israel completely halt Jewish settlement building.

Netanyahu's plan does not include a building freeze in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, a swath of the city the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state, and it would not apply to some 3,000 homes already under construction in the West Bank.

About 300,000 Israelis live in settlements across the West Bank, and an additional 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, a territory annexed to Israel after it seized it in the 1967 Mideast war.

Abbas visited Caracas at the end of a South American tour that also took him to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay to build support for efforts toward a Palestinian state.

Latin American leaders backed his calls for Israel to halt settlement construction and also to guarantee that future borders are based on lines that existed before the 1967 war. Netanyahu says such matters must be resolved in negotiations.

Abbas met on Friday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has stepped squarely into Middle East politics this week by hosting both the Palestinian leader and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Chavez saluted the Palestinians for what he called their "fight against the Yankee empire ... against the genocidal state of Israel, which attacks, which kills, which attempts to exterminate the Palestinian people."

Abbas thanked the Chavez government for its support and said: "We're all on the same path."

In a ceremony at the presidential palace, Chavez presented his guest with an olive branch and a gold-plated replica of a sword that once belonged to 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar — Venezuela's most revered founding father.

"We want peace," Chavez said, then hugged Abbas. "May this sword never need to be unsheathed."

Venezuelan and Palestinian delegations signed a series of cooperation agreements including initiatives to increase trade and establish student exchange programs. Chavez said Venezuela would open an embassy in the West Bank.

The socialist leader also repeated his polemical praise of Carlos the Jackal, the imprisoned Venezuelan notorious for a series of Cold War-era bombings, assassinations and hostage dramas.

Carlos — whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez — was convicted of terrorism and assassination, and is serving a life sentence in a French prison for the 1975 murders of two French secret agents and an alleged informant. He also has been linked to bombings in France and the 1976 hijacking of an Air France jet en route to Uganda.

Chavez lauded Ramirez as "a soldier of the Palestinian Liberation Organization who represented all of us in the Palestinian struggle."

"No one should be offended. ... I'm telling my truth," he told reporters.

When Chavez praised Ramirez as a "revolutionary fighter" last week, it prompted the French Foreign Ministry to issue a firm response to Venezuela's ambassador in Paris, and drew criticism from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Shimon Samuels, director of international relations for the Los Angeles-based Jewish rights center, said in a statement that Chavez transmitted "an abominable message" condoning violence. "He prefers to put himself on the side of murderers," Samuels said.

Chavez has been strengthening ties with Israel's adversaries while trading verbal barbs with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who predicted last week that the people of Venezuela and Iran will soon get rid of their leaders.

Venezuela severed ties with Israel in January to protest its military offensive in the Gaza Strip. In April, Palestinian officials opened a diplomatic mission in Venezuela, saying it would be a hub for diplomacy in South America.