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Clinton makes personal bid to resume Mideast talks

US hopes of reviving Mideast peace talks appeared shaky on Saturday after a senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians are unlikely to resume negotiations if Israel does not halt Jewish settlement building.

world Updated: Oct 31, 2009 21:22 IST

US hopes of reviving Mideast peace talks appeared shaky on Saturday after a senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians are unlikely to resume negotiations if Israel does not halt Jewish settlement building.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and aides in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi on Saturday before flying to Israel, where she is expected to meet senior Israeli officials in a push to restart peace negotiations.

A top aide to Abbas, Saeb Erekat, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that Clinton had asked Abbas to allow Israel's government to complete building 3,000 units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and to allow the government to construct public buildings and continue construction in east Jerusalem _ a territory Palestinians hope will be their future capital.

Clinton's request would be a major change for the U.S. administration, which previously had demanded Israel halt all settlement building before negotiations could resume. "This is a nonstarter," Erekat said. "And that's why it's unlikely to restart negotiations."

U.S. officials did not speak to reporters after the Abu Dhabi meeting.

Abbas later told a press conference that he had reiterated his position to Clinton that "peace must have its commitments _ (that) being the complete halt to settlement building." Palestinians see Jewish settlement building as one of the biggest threats to their ability to form a viable state in the territories of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Over the course of the summer, President Barack Obama had hoped for a fast track to renewed peace negotiations. But Clinton reported to him on Oct. 22 that neither side had taken sufficient steps toward resuming the dialogue.

Clinton arrived in Abu Dhabi early Saturday after a three-day visit to Pakistan.

Obama held a joint meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas in New York in September, hoping it would persuade them to return to negotiations that had broken off more than a year ago. In her report to the president in October, Clinton indicated that the Palestinians had strengthened security efforts and reforms of government institutions, but needed to do more to stop those who carry out or encourage attacks on Israel. She has indicated that Israelis have eased Palestinians' freedom of movement and expressed a willingness to curtail the building of settlements in the Palestinian areas. The Obama administration, however, had been demanding an end to all new settlement construction, which the Israelis have refused.

Clinton intends to consult with a range of Arab foreign ministers on the Israel-Palestinian stalemate when she attends an international conference in Morocco on Monday and Tuesday. Her talks in Jerusalem are expected to include Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who suggested recently that Israelis and Palestinians come up with a long-term interim arrangement that would ensure stability, while delaying a final deal.

He has recommended leaving the toughest issues _ such as the status of disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees who lost homes in the conflict _ "to a much later stage." In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. before leaving Pakistan's capital on Friday, Clinton played down the prospects for a quick breakthrough.

"We knew it would be a process," she said. "We knew that it would be challenging."

Complicating the effort are the responses to international calls for an independent inquiry into Israel's offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip last winter. A U.N. report by respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone accused Israel and Palestinian militants of war crimes during the three-week operation.

Gaza's rulers, the Islamic militant group Hamas, said Clinton's visit was "destined to fail."

Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the U.S. could not effectively engage in peacemaking while ignoring Hamas, which came to power in Palestinian elections in 2006 and then seized power in Gaza in 2007. The U.S. says it won't engage with Hamas until it drops its refusal to accept Israel's right to exist and meets other preconditions.

Associated Press reporter Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.