RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jan 22 (Reuters) - The United States told Palestinian leaders on Friday they must resume talks with Israel if they want US help to achieve a peace treaty that ends Israeli occupation and creates a Palestinian state.
Putting the ball squarely in the Palestinian court, US envoy George Mitchell told President Mahmoud Abbas that returning to the table was paramount, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Mitchell himself left without comment.
With little to show for the past year of diplomacy, US President Barack Obama's Middle East policy now turns on these talks about talks. The Palestinians refuse to talk until Israel stops building settlements on occupied West Bank land.
Mitchell said that if we want help to achieve a final settlement we must resume the negotiations. This was the main point of discussion, Erekat said.
We do not share a common point of view on this issue, he told reporters, blaming the deadlock on the right-wing coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has refused to stop expanding Jewish settlements around Jerusalem.
We want the resumption of negotiations. We are not obstructing negotiations, Erekat said the Palestinians had told Mitchell in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday. Therefore you must work with Netanyahu to remove his conditions.
Netanyahu issued a statement later in which he also called on Palestinian leaders to resume talks and said they were wasting time by attaching overly stringent conditions for negotiations.
The Palestinians are the ones who are hampering movement on the peace process by placing conditions that were not placed in the past on any Israeli government, the statement read.
A year ago at the outset of his term, Obama listed a Middle East peace settlement among his foreign policy priorities and initially backed Abbas's demand for a total settlement freeze before talks suspended in December 2008 were relaunched.
But Obama later retreated from that position in the face of Netanyahu's refusal, and on Thursday he admitted overestimating the chances of a Middle East breakthrough.
The limits placed on both sides' leaders by their domestic critics -- notably Islamist Hamas and Israeli settlers -- had hampered a rapprochement, he told Time magazine.
Highlighting tensions, Palestinians in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh who tried to stage a protest against a nearby Jewish settlement clashed with Israeli soldiers on Friday. Israel in November announced a freeze in settlement building other than around Jerusalem for 10 months but despite US pressure Abbas has not relented. Palestinian analysts see a risk of greater violence if people lose hope of an end to occupation.
Palestinian sources said Mitchell planned to meet Netanyahu again on Saturday and would also go to Egypt, which plays an important role in the mediation process.
Erekat said the Palestinians appreciated the U.S. efforts. But Netanyahu had derailed them.
He refused to stop settlement activities, he refused to resume negotiations where we left off, Erekat added, referring to late 2008, when talks with the previous, centrist Israeli government of Ehud Olmert were suspended over the Gaza war.
Abbas has shown no readiness to budge from his demand that all settlement building cease, though he hinted recently that a US guarantee of the kind of Palestinian state that would emerge from talks might be enough for him to climb down.
Palestinians want all the land Israel seized in 1967, including a capital in East Jerusalem, and the return, or conceivably compensation, for millions of refugees and their descendants, who lost homes in what became Israel in 1948.
Israel, however, would be unlikely to accept anything in writing that it would say prejudges the outcome of negotiations. (Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Noah Barkin)