Abbas to Israel: Choose Peace over Settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looks on during their meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
The Palestinian president on Thursday appealed to Israelis to choose peace over settlements, saying that opportunities for a peace deal must not be wasted.

Mahmoud Abbas spoke to thousands of flag-waving supporters at a rally in the West Bank, marking the sixth anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Abbas' bitter political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, suppressed all Arafat commemorations in the Gaza strip, a sign of the deepening political rift despite renewed attempts by the two sides to reconcile.

Washington launched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in September, but negotiations foundered a month later when Israel resumed building new homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians claim for a future state. The Palestinians say they won't resume negotiations until all building stops. The United States has so far failed to broker a compromise.

About halfway through his speech Thursday, Abbas sent an appeal to the Israelis, urging them not to waste peace opportunities.

"I now turn to the Israeli people," he said. "I hope they will hear us — those who believe in peace, if they exist."

"Making peace is more important than settlements," he said. "A comprehensive and fair peace is more precious than anything else."

But Israel is "quite serious" about reaching a final peace deal with the Palestinians, and hopes to broaden the process to include other Arab countries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday.

Netanyahu spoke at a photo session before meeting privately in New York with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on prospects for overcoming an impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Israeli leader said he and Clinton had been consulting by phone "quite intensively" over the last few weeks but had not met face-to-face since an opening round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Jerusalem in September. The talks broke off shortly after that session, and the Palestinians have insisted they will not resume until Israel halts construction in Jewish settlements.

"We've been talking and will talk today about how to resume them to continue this process to get the historic agreement with peace and security between us and the Palestinians," Netanyahu said.

"I would like to add that we also hope to broaden it to many other Arab countries. So this is our common goal. We're quite serious about doing it and we want to get on with it."

Asked by a reporter whether peace talks would resume soon, Clinton replied, "That's what we're going to be discussing. We're both very committed to it."

Netanyahu has said he won't renew a 10-month ban on construction in West Bank settlements that expired in September and that he will not curb building in east Jerusalem. This week, Israel's announcement that it is moving ahead with plans for 1,300 new apartments for Jews there set off a harsh public exchange with the U.S.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday said he would oppose slowing construction in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their future capital. "We will not accept any (building) freeze, not for three months, not for two months and not for one day," he said.

In Gaza, Hamas police on Thursday broke up a private screening of a documentary about Arafat's life, participants said.

Palestinian lawmaker Ashraf Jumma said police cut the electricity to his office and detained a number of the more than two dozen attendees, including journalists. Some news photographers were forced to show their footage to police and were released only after promising not to air it.

Hamas officials declined to comment.

The United States is working with other countries to help the Palestinians set up a government for an independent state. On Wednesday, Clinton announced an additional $150 million in aid for the effort.