Palestinians: No talks without settlement freeze

RAMALLAH – The Palestinians can't resume negotiations with Israel under current conditions and will pursue their bid to win UN recognition, a top Palestinian official said Thursday, after President Mahmoud Abbas and senior officials reviewed the latest appeal from Mideast mediators to restart talks and reach a deal within a year.

Last week, Abbas asked the UN to grant full membership to a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 war. In a turning point for Palestinian diplomacy, Abbas overrode strong objections by the US which, like Israel, argues that a state must arise from negotiations.

Since returning from the UN, both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have tried to avoid being blamed for the deepening impasse.

The Palestinians say they can't be expected to negotiate while Israel keeps expanding settlements on occupied land, thus pre-empting the outcome of a deal. They say they suspect Netanyahu wants talks as a diplomatic shield, but is not interested in reaching a deal.

Netanyahu alleges the Palestinians are not serious about peace and says he is ready to negotiate at any time. However, the Israeli leader refuses to halt settlement construction or recognize the pre-1967 frontier as a baseline, rejecting internationally backed positions and Palestinian demands.

After the Palestinians' UN bid, the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators – the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia – called for the resumption of talks and a deal within a year. The Quartet statement did not specifically refer to the two Palestinian demands but listed a number of speeches, U.N. resolutions and other documents that contain them.

On Thursday, Abbas consulted with officials from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and his Fatah movement on what to do next.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the PLO, said after the meeting that the Quartet statement contained encouraging elements, but that this is not enough to resume negotiations. The Palestinians are eager to restart talks, but Israel first has to commit to all references in the Quartet statement, "especially concerning the borders of 1967 and stopping settlement activity," he said.

Abed Rabbo also said the Palestinians will keep pursuing UN recognition. Currently, the 15-member UN Security Council is reviewing the issue. The US has already said it would veto the request should the Palestinians muster the required nine votes.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told reporters Thursday that the Palestinians have secured eight votes so far, and that they are lobbying for more support, including from Bosnia and Colombia.

Despite the certain US veto, the Palestinians are pushing for a majority in the council, in part to show that their statehood bid has international support. Malki told reporters that eight council members – Russia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon – are expected to vote for Palestinian membership.

He said Nigeria and Gabon were initially considered undecided, but that senior officials from both countries have assured him of their support. Several others listed by Malki, including China and South Africa, already publicly announced their support for the membership bid.

The Palestinians also retain the option of seeking recognition as a non-member observer state from the General Assembly.

Also Thursday, the Palestinian Economics Ministry said that without Israel's occupation, the Palestinian economy would be almost double in size and entirely independent of foreign aid.

The ministry said losses due to Israeli restrictions amount to nearly US$7 billion a year, or 85 percent of the Palestinian nominal gross domestic product. This includes nearly US$2 billion in losses due to Israel's blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, water use restrictions and restrictions on natural resources respectively, said Economics Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh.

Without the occupation, the Palestinian Authority could end its dependence on foreign aid, the minister said. Abbas' Palestinian Authority receives hundreds of millions of dollars of aid every year.

The International Monetary Fund concluded in a separate report this year that the Palestinian per capita GDP would have been 88 percent higher if growth had continued at about the same rate as during the years 1968-1987 when borders with Israel were more open.

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