Direct Mideast talks collapse, Gulf states back Palestinians
By Hazel Ward | Saturday, 12.11.2010, 11:35 AM

Brazil, Argentina recognize independent Palestine on 1967 borders


Houses under construction are seen in a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim December 8, 2010. The United States on Tuesday abandoned its effort to persuade Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements, officials said, dealing a blow to efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
JERUSALEM — Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians appeared to have collapsed on Wednesday after Washington admitted its attempts to secure a fresh ban on Jewish settlement building had failed.

In a long-awaited announcement late on Tuesday, U.S. officials admitted top-level efforts to coax Israel into imposing new curbs on West Bank settlement construction had gone nowhere.

Without a new freeze, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate, effectively deadlocking direct peace talks that started on September 2 but ran into difficulties just weeks later.

"We have been pursuing a moratorium as a means to create conditions for a return to meaningful and sustained negotiations," U..S State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in New York City.

"After a considerable effort, we have concluded that this does not create a firm basis to work towards our shared goal of a framework agreement," Crowley said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were now expected to visit Washington next week for talks with the U.S. administration on ways to keep the process alive, he added.

Last Thursday, Palestinian officials said they had been informed by U.S. officials their efforts had failed, which U.. and Israeli officials refused to confirm at the time.

The United States has for weeks been trying to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a new moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

A previous 10-month freeze expired on September 26, shortly after the launch of new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians — the first direct negotiations in nearly two years.

It now appears the two sides are likely to return to some form of indirect negotiations, Crowley suggested.

"We will have further conversations on the substance with the parties, and we will continue to try to find ways to create the kind of confidence that will eventually, we hope, allow them to engage directly," he said.

Crowley's remarks suggested the talks were likely to return to the indirect format they took earlier this year, when U.S. envoy George Mitchell spent four months shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

In Ramallah, the Palestinians placed the blame squarely on Israel.

"By refusing to give a clear answer to the United States, Israel has refused to freeze settlement building and to give a chance to peace in the region," an official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Direct talks were launched at a high-profile ceremony on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus, with Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas vowing to seek an agreement within a year.

They were supposed to meet every two weeks, but that arrangement collapsed after September 26, which marked the official end of a 10-month Israeli ban on settlement building in the West Bank.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Washington offered Israel a package of diplomatic and security incentives in exchange for a new three-month ban.

But Israel demanded the terms be spelled out in a letter, which would include a U.S. commitment to let it continue building in occupied east Jerusalem. The letter never materialized.

Gulf leaders back the Palestinian stand on settlements

Gulf leaders threw their support behind the Palestinian Authority's refusal to negotiate with Israel in the absence of a settlement freeze, in a statement on Tuesday at the end of their annual summit.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also emphasized that any settlement freeze should include Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

The oil-rich region's Arab leaders underlined both their support for "the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state" and "opposition to a partial settlement or in stages" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They "denounced the Israeli project for making occupied Al-Quds (Jerusalem) the capital of the Jewish people" and urged the international community to "compel Israel to end its practices aimed at 'Judaising' east Jerusalem."

The international community considers all Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land to be illegal.

Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires Monday,  Argentine President Cristina Kirchner  said her country recognized a "free and independent" Palestinian state, days after Brazil drew sharp criticism from Israel and U.S. lawmakers for taking the same step.

 "The Argentine government recognizes Palestine as a free and independent state within the borders defined in 1967," Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said, reading from the letter.

Israel has already reacted with "sadness and disappointment" to Brazil's declaration on the issue, saying it breached a 1995 agreement it had with the Palestinian Authority that any Palestinian state should only come about through negotiations with it.

U.S. lawmakers have called Brazil's decision "severely misguided" and "regrettable."

Western countries have agreed that any definition of a Palestinian state required Israeli approval. The United States has consistently protected Israel's position in the UN Security Council.

Argentina's move came after Brazil last Friday made public a letter it had sent also recognizing a Palestinian state including West Bank and Gaza, which Israel seized in the 1967 Six Day War and has occupied since.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who had sought a mediator role in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, made the decision shortly before he is to stand down on January 1 next year.

His protegee and former cabinet chief, Dilma Rousseff, has been elected to take over from him on pledges to pursue his policies.

Argentina said its recognition of a Palestinian state reflected a general consensus in Mercosur, the South American trade bloc.

Mercosur's members are: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela's membership is pending. Associate members are: Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador Ecuador and Peru.

By Hazel Ward

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