Palestinian President Abbas: Peace talks with Israel doomed if settlement building continues

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Sunday that he will not back down from his threat to pull out of new peace talks with Israel if it resumes construction in West Bank settlements.

The negotiations are set to resume this week with a gala summit meeting in Washington after months of American mediation efforts.

Israelis themselves are divided over the settlements, including how many should be dismantled, if any, to enable the creation of a Palestinian state. Reflecting that divide, leading Israeli theater actors and playwrights pledged Sunday not to perform in West Bank settlements, an announcement that drew sharp criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Under intense American pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a 10-month partial freeze in settlement construction to boost prospects for talks, but the negotiations are resuming just three weeks before the freeze expires. Netanyahu has not pledged to renew it, facing stiff opposition from hard-line coalition partners in his government.

The Palestinians never endorsed the freeze, because it did not halt all construction in the West Bank and did not apply to east Jerusalem, the section claimed by the Palestinians for a future capital.

Speaking in a televised address recorded earlier Sunday in Jordan, Abbas said, "the Israeli government holds full responsibility for the failure and the collapse of these negotiations if it continues settlement expansion in all the occupied Palestinian territories," a clear reference to east Jerusalem.

Abbas is facing internal opposition from Palestinian hard-liners, especially Hamas, for agreeing to return to the negotiating table. The Islamic Hamas, which rules Gaza and has a significant presence in the West Bank, rejects any contact with Israel. Other Palestinians criticize Abbas for not securing Israeli concessions in advance of the talks.

Netanyahu also must deal with opposition.

Hawkish members of his coalition government oppose any concessions to the Palestinians, and one unleashed a harsh tirade against the Palestinians Sunday.

The spiritual leader of one of the hard-line parties in Netanyahu's coalition caused a stir by saying in his weekly Sabbath sermon that the Palestinians and Abbas should "perish from the world." Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, also described Palestinians as "evil, bitter enemies of Israel."

The 89-year-old former chief rabbi of Israel is a respected religious scholar among Jews of Middle Eastern descent, but is also known for vitriolic comments about Arabs, secular Jews, liberals, women and gays. Shas runs private schools that educate tens of thousands of Israeli children.

The Abbas government responded angrily, demanding in a statement that the Israeli government put a stop to what it described as a "culture of hatred in Israel toward Palestinians."

The Israeli premier's office rejected Yosef's remarks, saying they "do not reflect the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the position of the Israeli government." The office said in a statement that Netanyahu is going to the talks with a goal of "reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that will put an end to the conflict."

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley also condemned the rabbi's comments, saying in a statement that they are "not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace."

Reflecting Israeli divisions over the settlements, more than 60 Israeli actors and playwrights signed a letter refusing to perform in the West Bank. They wrote that appearing in a settlement clashes with their political views.

The issue came to the forefront because a $10 million performing arts center in Ariel, one of the West Bank's largest settlements, is set to open in November. Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman said the main Israeli theater companies agreed to perform in his town.

Netanyahu complained Sunday that the artists are playing into the hands of what he said were international efforts to delegitimize Israel with economic, cultural and academic boycotts.

"The last thing we need at this time, while under such an attack, is an attempt for boycotts from within," he said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting.


Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this report from Jerusalem.