Abbas: No talks with Israel in shadow of settlements

President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday ruled out negotiations with Israel as long as it refuses to freeze settlement building, but did not specify if he would agree to indirect talks.

"We will not accept negotiations as long as settlements continue," Abbas told reporters in Cairo after more than one hour of talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

He said the discussions focused on "what comes after" Washington on Tuesday admitted that weeks-long efforts to persuade Israel to freeze settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem had failed.

But Abbas appeared to leave the door open to a final decision on resuming talks with Israel in some form or other, saying he would first hold further consultations with Arab and Palestinian officials.

"There must be clear references for peace… and we will discuss all that with the follow-up committee, the Palestinian leadership and after that there will be a decision," he said.

Abbas has in the past sought the endorsement of the Arab follow-up committee on the question of resuming direct US-brokered peace talks with Israel.

Direct talks were re-launched on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus but stalled three weeks later when Israel refused to renew a moratorium on settlement building.

Egypt's government daily Al-Ahram quoted the Palestinian ambassador to Cairo Barakat al-Farra as saying that Abbas would travel later to Amman for consultations with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries to have peace treaties with Israel and both countries are a must-stop for Palestinian leaders for consultations when the going gets rough.

Abbas arrived Wednesday in Cairo from Athens and immediately went into talks with Arab League chief Amr Mussa who later told reporters that a ministerial committee on the peace process would convene next week.

Washington on Tuesday announced that weeks-long efforts to coax Israel into imposing new curbs on settlement construction had failed, leaving direct peace talks deadlocked.

The Palestinians have repeatedly stressed they will not resume direct peace talks unless there is a halt to building in the occupied West Bank as well as a freeze in annexed east Jerusalem, which they consider the capital of their future state.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has said Washington should recognize an independent Palestinian state in response to Israel's refusal to freeze settlement building.

Erakat said Abbas, who on Wednesday said the peace process was in crisis, was to hold separate talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Arab leaders over the next few days.

"The president will consult with the Arab brothers before responding to the American ideas," he said Wednesday in Cairo.

Erakat and Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad were heading to Washington on Thursday for talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and top negotiator Isaac Molho preceded them there.

The Palestinian and Israeli officials will be attending a conference in Washington during which Clinton was to give a keynote address outlining a new strategy for advancing the peace process.

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