Ken Ellingwood
The Los Angeles Times
December 28, 2007 - 2:27pm,1,3712835.sto...

Meeting for the second time this month as part of a new U.S.-launched peace effort, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators Monday bogged down again over familiar issues: proposed Israeli construction in areas the Palestinians claim for a future state and Israel's demand that the Palestinians crack down on armed groups.

The two sides have made no apparent progress since President Bush convened a peace conference last month in an effort to revive serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush is to visit the region in two weeks as part of his diplomatic pressure.

It was the second time the negotiating teams had met since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pledged during the conference in Annapolis, Md., to try to hammer out a deal by the end of 2008.

Olmert and Abbas are due to meet this week.

Monday's two-hour session was as contentious as the one two weeks ago that had been billed as the kickoff of the promised yearlong peace push.

The teams, headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, were expected to focus in the early meetings on setting up a framework for negotiations. But they instead have squabbled over settlements and security.

Palestinian leaders earlier complained about Israel's announcement that it would build 300 more homes in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Israel said the plans for Har Homa were approved years ago.

Israeli media have reported that Israel's proposed 2008 national budget includes about $25 million to build more than 700 units in Har Homa and the settlement of Maale Adumim.

The Palestinians say the plans violate Israel's commitments under the 2003 U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint known as the road map. The Israelis and Palestinians have pledged to implement the first phase of the plan at the same time as their leaders pursue a negotiated end to the conflict.

That phase calls for Israel to freeze settlement activity, including "natural growth" of existing settlements, and for the Palestinians to act against armed groups.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said continued Israeli building undermines the Palestinian public's support for the moderate approach favored by Abbas, whose authority has been in effect limited to the West Bank after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized sole control of the Gaza Strip in factional fighting this summer.

"If [talks] fail, we will disappear from the West Bank," Erekat said. "We need the Israelis to understand that."

Israel sees little chance of progress unless the Palestinians take action against militias that have carried out hundreds of attacks against Israelis, including regular rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Although Abbas' government no longer controls Gaza, the Israelis maintain that no peace settlement involving the coastal enclave can be reached without dismantling the militias there.

"We demanded that they carry out their public commitments on security," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel.

The road map has languished since it was unveiled because of noncompliance on both sides.

Israel views Har Homa as part of the municipality of Jerusalem and thus subject only to Israeli law. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War, but most of the world has not recognized that action.

Israeli officials contend that any construction in Maale Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem and the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, would comply with the road map because it would occur only in areas that are already built up, and not require confiscating more land.

Israel views Maale Adumim as part of the complex of settlements that probably would end up in its hands in any treaty with the Palestinians.

U.S. officials have taken a dim view of Israeli building when the Bush administration is seeking a breakthrough after taking a hands-off approach for most of the last seven years.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017