Palestinians back Abbas on settlement slowdown

By KARIN LAUB (AP) – 59 minutes ago

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Dozens of senior Palestinians on Saturday backed President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it builds in West Bank settlements, dealing a new setback to troubled U.S. efforts to salvage peace talks.

Israel refuses to extend a 10-month-old curb on settlement construction, while Abbas says there is no point in negotiating as long as settlements eat up more of the land the Palestinians want for a future state.

The Obama administration has said it will keep pushing to find a solution to the impasse, and U.S. envoy George Mitchell is now scrambling to enlist the help of Arab leaders to rescue the negotiations. The Palestinians’ final decision on whether to quit the talks is expected at an Arab League summit next weekend.

However, Saturday’s unanimous decision by dozens of senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas’ Fatah movement makes compromise increasingly unlikely. “The Palestinian position is clear,” senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said after the three-hour meeting at Abbas’ headquarters. “There will be no negotiations as long as settlement building continues.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is equally adamant about not extending the curb on settlement construction, and reiterated as recently as Friday that he would not budge. On Saturday, he urged Abbas not to quit the talks.

The Palestinian stance appears puzzling at first glance.

President Barack Obama is seen by many here as more evenhanded in handling the Mideast conflict than his predecessors, and he has promised to push for a deal on Palestinian statehood within a year. Ostensibly, the Palestinians are risking the big prize — statehood — for the lesser goal of a settlement freeze during negotiations.

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