RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians belittled each other's commitment to peace as US envoy George Mitchell began a fresh attempt on Thursday to break the deadlock and get them talking to each other again.
In an inauspicuous start to his first shuttle diplomacy visit of 2010 after a dozen fruitless trips last year, Mitchell's arrival was clouded by tough statements from both sides accusing the other of cynicism.
Mitchell, as usual, said little and there was no immediate clue as to whether the public rhetoric might mask a more positive atmosphere in closed-door talks, first with Israelis in Jerusalem and then on Friday with the Palestinians in Ramallah.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had on Wednesday imposed further conditions on negotiations and announced Israel's intention to continue its occupation of the West Bank whatever happens.
Benjamin Netanyahu has said 'No' to a settlement freeze, 'No' to sharing Jerusalem, 'No' to the 1967 borders, 'No' to the rights of Palestinian refugees. Now he wants to retain the Jordan Valley, Erekat said in a statement. He was referring to a comment by Netanyahu that Israel would retain military control around any future Palestinian state that included the West Bank.
We had hoped to hear a clear commitment to negotiations without preconditions. What we got instead was Mr Netanyahu again trying to dictate their terms and preempt their outcome, Erakat said.
Addressing the foreign press late on Wednesday, Netanyahu attacked the Palestinian leadership for rejecting US calls to relaunch negotiations suspended for over a year.
The Palestinians have climbed up a tree, he said. And they like it up there. People bring ladders to them. We bring ladders to them. The higher the ladder, the higher they climb.
THE WEAKER PARTNER
Diplomats say Mitchell seems to be seeking a face-saving way for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his insistence that Netanyahu must stop all settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before negotiations can be resumed.
Netanyahu's premiership at the head of a right-wing coalition got off to a rough start 10 months ago with the administration of US President Barack Obama.
When Mitchell first visited, the Israeli leader was refusing even to talk about establishing a Palestinian state. But last June he embraced the two-state solution and in November he ordered a partial 10-month halt to settlement building.
Western diplomats say Washington now seems increasingly frustrated with Abbas. One, speaking privately, said Abbas as the weaker partner was now the focus of US efforts to stir the peace process back to life.
There was an implicit threat of cuts in US aid to the West Bank if Abbas held out, he said.
Abbas hinted last week at a possible way out of the impasse, if Washington framed the talks in such a way as to set an endgame, with the goal of a Palestinian state within a couple of years, or to define the parameters of the deal.
But Israel says that would prejudge the negotiations. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Paul Taylor)