Israel says it will not accept any Palestinian conditions for resuming peace negotiations

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israel will not accept conditions for resuming direct negotiations with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top Cabinet ministers affirmed in a meeting late Sunday, reflecting a hard line just as invitations to the talks appeared to be near.

The Palestinians want the framework and agenda of negotiations worked out ahead of time.

Under an emerging compromise, the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — was expected to issue an invitation for direct talks that would list underlying principles and a time frame.

However, Netanyahu and his inner circle fear that a Quartet statement would be a "fig leaf for Palestinian preconditions," said an official in Netanyahu's office who spoke on condition of anonymity because no government statement was made.

In a meeting late Sunday, the prime minister and his top ministers decided to hold out for a separate invitation from the United States without preconditions, the official said.

It was not clear whether the U.S. plans to issue such a separate invitation. The Obama administration has been pushing for a speedy resumption of negotiations that broke down in December 2008.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is wary of entering open-ended talks with Netanyahu, who has retreated from some of the concessions offered by his predecessors. Abbas wants Israel to accept the principle of Palestinian statehood in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war with minor modifications, and wants all Jewish settlement building to stop during negotiations.

The Israeli official said the leadership reinforced its long-held position that those are unacceptable preconditions.

Late Sunday, U.S. envoy David Hale met with Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah. Abbas aides said before the meeting that Hale was discussing the wording of a possible Quartet statement with Abbas.

Afterward, Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said consultations with the U.S. and other Quartet members would continue, but that some progress has been made. He would not elaborate.

In a sign of a calming atmosphere, Israeli army cranes on Sunday began removing a concrete barrier that shielded a Jewish neighborhood bordering the West Bank from gunfire.

The Israeli military erected the 600-yard (meter) concrete barrier nine years ago on the outskirts of the Gilo neighborhood in southern Jerusalem because of repeated Palestinian shootings from the West Bank town of Beit Jalla.

The barrier is being taken down over the next two weeks because of a reduced security threat and improved coordination between Israeli and West Bank security forces, the Israeli military said.

Gilo, a neighborhood of about 40,000, was a convenient target of gunmen during the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, which erupted in 2000. Palestinian militants frequently fired at Israelis, including West Bank motorists and soldiers. Gilo was hit because it lies across a shallow valley from a West Bank town.

Gilo was built on land Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed to Jerusalem, a step not recognized by the international community.

The uprising gradually ended after Abbas became Palestinian president in January 2005. Israel remains in overall control of the West Bank, while Abbas has restored order in once chaotic areas there.

In another sign that Abbas is trying to counter Hamas influence, his religious affairs minister told a news conference Sunday that the government has taken control of all the territory's mosques, including content of the main weekly sermon, to ensure that houses of worship are not used for political recruiting.

Mosques were once a Hamas stronghold. Since 2007, Abbas has been cracking down on the militants to make sure they don't attempt a West Bank takeover.

Religious Affairs Minister Ibrahim Habash said only government-sanctioned preachers are allowed to deliver sermons or teach religion in mosques.

Habash also defended the government's recent decision to stop broadcasting readings from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, over mosque loudspeakers before the call to prayer.

"The Quran should be listened to when recited, and we know that people are busy with their daily lives and won't pay attention when it comes from loudspeakers in the mosques," Habash said.


Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Mark Lavie in Jerusalem contributed to this report.