Fatah: No Peace Talks With Israel Unless Settlement Freeze

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been told by his Fatah movement that he must not resume peace talks unless Israel freezes its settlement construction, a senior Fatah member said Wednesday.

Fatah's position could help Abbas stand up to U.S. pressure to return to talks with Israel.

Last week, President Barack Obama told Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that negotiations must resume as quickly as possible, without preconditions. Obama admonished both leaders to stop wasting time.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are holding separate followup meetings in Washington this week with Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who hopes to bring the sides back to the negotiating table.

Abbas has repeatedly said he would not return to talks without a freeze in Israeli settlements, which is mandated by a U.S.-backed peace plan. Israel refuses to comply, offering at best to slow construction for a limited period.

The Obama administration was initially adamant about a halt to construction, but appears to have softened its stance after failing to make headway with the Israeli government on the issue.

Fatah's Central Committee, the movement's key decision-making body, met late Tuesday with Abbas to discuss his options following last week's trilateral meeting with Obama and Netanyahu.

Mohammed Dahlan, a committee member, said the panel told Abbas he must not budge.

"Settlements and negotiations are two parallel lines that will never meet," Dahlan told The Associated Press.

The settlements are being built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War and sought by the Palestinians for a future state. Nearly half a million Israelis have moved to these areas over the past four decades.

Palestinians argue that the continued construction is a major show of bad faith by Israel since the settlements gobble up more and more land. The settler population has increased by tens of thousands since the start of peace talks in 1993. Netanyahu says some construction must be allowed to accommodate what he calls "natural growth" in the settler population.

Dahlan said the 23-member committee was also unanimous in its demand that the agenda of the negotiations be defined ahead of time.

Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, held a series of talks with Abbas last year and agreed to tackle all so-called core issues, including a possible partition of Jerusalem. Netanyahu says Jerusalem is off-limits and says he is not bound by any promises made by Olmert.

Dahlan said he believes the Obama administration is "putting pressure on the Palestinians since they are the weakest party in the process."

"There is systematic backtracking by President Obama," Dahlan said. " There is a changing of the foundations and reference points of the negotiations, and therefore I don't expect a quick return to negotiations."