August 16, 2010 - 12:00am

The Palestinian leadership Sunday stressed anew that Israel must stop all forms of settlement activities before launching direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

The demand, long held by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), was a focal point when President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad held separate meetings with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store in Ramallah late last night.

Stopping settlement expansion and allocating a clear agenda for the negotiations "are the real entry to start direct negotiations leading to an independent Palestinian statehood with (East) Jerusalem as its capital," the official Palestinian news agency Wafa quoted Abbas as saying.

Earlier on Sunday, Fayyad told the Norwegian delegation that the peace process "needs credibility and seriousness" to secure a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict.

He also urged the international community to press Israel to "stop settlement activities completely, especially in Jerusalem and its surroundings," according to Wafa reports.

Yet in a move obviously provocative to the Palestinians, Israel has lately decided to build 23 portable structures in Jewish settlements in the West Bank that would serve as classrooms.

The decision was made despite a 10-month moratorium Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late last year on new settlement construction projects in West Bank settlements.

The Israeli government dubbed the reluctant compromise, made under heavy international pressure, particularly from the United States, an unprecedented opportunity for the two neighbors to resume peace talks that had been stalled since the Jewish state's massive military operation in the Gaza Strip over one and a half years ago.

However, the Palestinians have condemned the Israeli gesture as insincere, as the suspension order excludes the disputed East Jerusalem as well as public facilities like schools and synagogues and the some 3,000 housing units already under construction in West Bank settlements.

Also under U.S. pressure, the PNA agreed earlier this year to enter so-called proximity talks with Israel under mediation of U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy George Mitchell in a bid to bridge the gaps that prevent the resumption of direct talks.

Commenting on the indirect negotiations, an aide to Abbas said Sunday after a meeting between Abbas and David Hale, Mitchell's deputy, that the talks were making headway.

"A progress has been made in the proximity talks, and the talks will continue," Abbas' spokesman Nabil Abu Rdineh said in a statement. He did not elaborate, only saying that the discussions were focusing on "ideas that have been put forward."

The remarks marked a different tone from previous comments made by many Palestinian negotiators, who have long been complaining about lack of visible progress.

The Palestinian side would make its decision on whether to upgrade the indirect talks to direct ones after the Middle East Quartet of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations specifies its stance, Abu Rdineh said.

The Quartet is expected to issue a statement in the coming days explaining their commitment to the peace process, laying some principles for the negotiations and formally inviting the Palestinians and Israelis to start face-to-face talks.


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