Palestinians say no talks without settlement halt

An adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that peace talks cannot continue without an Israeli settlement freeze but there has been no progress in breaking a deadlock on that issue yet.

The aide, Nabil Shaath, spoke ahead of a crucial meeting between Abbas and U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell. The Obama administration dispatched Mitchell on an emergency mission to try to salvage the U.S.-sponsored negotiations that began only a month ago, concerned that Palestinians might quit after Israel refused to extend a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements.

Abbas has said he will quit the talks without an extension of the freeze.

"Unless the settlement activities stop completely, there is no use in continuing these negotiations," Shaath told The Associated Press.

"There is no progress on this issue," he added. "Apparently the Israelis are determined to swallow and steal the land and consider that much more important than peace."

Mitchell is shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians to try to break the deadlock over settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says renewing the settlement curb could fracture his pro-settlement coalition. The Palestinians argue that there is no point negotiating as long as settlements gobble up land they want for a future state.

Various compromises had been considered, including limiting new construction to major settlement blocs, but Shaath said only a full settlement freeze will suffice.

Abbas was to announce his final decision at a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers, which had been set for Monday in Cairo. However, Arab diplomats say the meeting has now been put off until Wednesday.

Heightening the sense of urgency, Europe's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, rushed to the region for talks with Abbas later Thursday and Netanyahu on Friday.

Ashton reiterated in a statement that she regrets Israel's decision not to extend the ban on settlement housing starts.