RAMALLAH, West Bank, Aug 20 (Reuters/Mohammed Assadi) - Palestinian leaders on Friday accepted a US invitation for face-to-face peace talks with Israel
but said they would withdraw if it resumed Jewish settlement
building on occupied land.
The chief Palestinian negotiator said the Palestinians would pull out of the talks, due to start on Sept. 2, if the Israeli government announced any new settlement building on land where the Palestinians aim to found their state.
If the Israeli government decides to announce new tenders on Sept. 26, then we won't be able to continue with the talks, Saeb Erekat
said after a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization
's (PLO) executive committee in Ramallah
He was referring to the date when a 10-month Israeli freeze on settlement building in the West Bank is due to end. His comments reflected the immediate challenges facing the U.S. effort to revive the two-decade-old Middle East peace process
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
heads a coalition government that backs Jewish settlement on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. A majority of his seven-member inner cabinet opposes extending the settlement moratorium.
A minority is seeking some compromise that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
might be able to swallow.
The PLO executive committee accepted the U.S. invitation to begin direct talks during an emergency meeting in Ramallah. We hope that the Israeli government will choose peace not settlements, will choose reconciliation and not the continuation of occupation, Erekat said.
Israel already had accepted the invitation issued earlier on Friday by the United States for a start to direct negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas.
Abbas had sought a full halt to Israeli settlement building before any direct negotiations. He also had demanded a clear agenda for the talks -- demands which Palestinian critics said he failed to secure.
Now they go to direct talks with neither, Palestinian political commentator Hany al-Masri told Reuters. It damages the credibility of the president and the leadership, he said.
This will help Hamas, he added. Hamas is an Islamist group that seized control of the Gaza Strip
in 2007. It is listed as a terrorist group by Western powers and is opposed to Abbas's strategy of seeking a negotiated peace deal with Israel, to which it is deeply hostile.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said on Friday that the parties would determine the terms of reference and basis for negotiations when they met.
Abbas, by far the weaker party, has said he had faced unprecedented international pressure to agree to direct talks.
His credibility has been damaged by the failure of past talks and he was reluctant to enter more negotiations with an Israeli leader he believes is unwilling to make the Palestinians a peace deal they can accept.
The Palestinians said they had accepted a resumption of direct talks based on a statement issued on Friday by the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
That text reiterated a commitment to earlier Quartet statements, including one which called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, inviting the parties to start the talks in Washington, made no mention of the statement.
Neither did a statement issued by Netanyahu's office in which he accepted the U.S. invitation. Netanyahu had said there should be no preconditions for peace talks. Clinton, in her statement, also said there should be no preconditions.
We confirmed our opposition to accepting Hillary Clinton's invitation, said Tayser Khaled, a member of the PLO executive committee representing the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine
. It was provocative and amounted to submission to Israeli conditions, he said.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Michael Roddy)