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Israel and Palestinians resume suspended peace talks

17/03/2008 - 15:56

By Adam Entous

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian negotiatorsheld undisclosed peace talks after a deadly Israeli offensivein the Gaza Strip led to their brief suspension and will meetagain on Monday, Israeli officials said.

Despite growing tensions over settlement expansion onoccupied land, Israeli Prime Ehud Olmert said the constructionwould continue in Jerusalem and in settlement blocs the Jewishstate wants to keep as part of any deal with the Palestinians.

"There will be places where there will be construction, oradditions to construction, because these places will remain inIsrael's hands in any future constellation -- and thisincludes, first and foremost, Jerusalem, and everyone knowsthis," Olmert told a news conference with German ChancellorAngela Merkel.

The comments come despite pressure from U.S. Secretary ofState Condoleezza Rice for both Israel and the Palestinians todo more to meet their commitments under the long-stalled "roadmap" peace plan.

Washington has been especially critical of Israeli plans tobuild hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements in and aroundJerusalem, in areas occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

The peace talks, led by Israeli Foreign Minister TzipiLivni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurie, haveshown little sign of progress since they were launched at apeace conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November.

"There will be a meeting today between the foreign minister... who heads the negotiating team in order to continue thenegotiations with the Palestinian side led by Abu Ala (Qurie),"Olmert said. "We have not stopped, we are not stopping and wewill not give up."

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity,said Livni and Qurie met secretly about 10 days ago but thatsession was not publicly disclosed.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declined to comment.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas temporarily suspendedthe negotiations earlier this month after an Israeli offensivein the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip killed more than 120Palestinians, many of them civilians.

Israel said the incursion was meant to counter cross-borderrocket fire by militants.

COMMITMENTS

The road map calls on the Jewish state to remove outpostsbuilt without government authorisation in the West Bank and tohalt all settlement activity in the territory. It demands thatthe Palestinians crack down on militants.

"We have many obligations. The Palestinians have manyobligations," Olmert said.

"But what is most important is to hold serious and genuinenegotiations with the Palestinian Authority -- and not stopthem or delay them, so that it is possible to reach anagreement. We want this wholeheartedly," Olmert said.

Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Banksince Hamas Islamists seized Gaza in June, wants to reach afull-fledged agreement allowing him to declare statehood.

Olmert has said the goal of the peace talks was to reach anunderstanding this year on "basic principles" for a Palestinianstate, with implementation only once Abbas reined in militantsin the West Bank and Gaza Strip as called for under thelong-stalled "road map" peace plan.

Israel has yet to meet its own commitments under the roadmap to halt all settlement activity and uproot Jewish outpostsin the West Bank built without Israeli governmentauthorisation.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Fridaythat neither Israel nor the Palestinians had done "nearlyenough" to meet peacemaking obligations.

(Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Diana Abdallah)


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