Israel rejects 'preconditions' for direct peace talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday ruled out any "preconditions" ahead of an expected invitation to direct peace talks with the Palestinians that may be based on a complete settlement halt.

His remarks during a landmark visit to Greece came as Washington appeared to be closing in on the relaunch of direct talks after months of shuttle diplomacy that have failed to convince the Palestinians to enter face-to-face talks.

"I hope to resume direct talks with the Palestinians without preconditions," Netanyahu said in Athens.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here addressing the press in Athens, ruled out any preconditions ahead of an expected invitation to direct peace talks with the Palestinians that may be based on a complete settlement halt

Earlier an official speaking on condition of anonymity had told AFP in Jerusalem "Israel is ready to start direct negotiations immediately, but without any preconditions."

"The Palestinians, who have lost valuable time by refusing to revive these direct contacts, will present all the topics they want to discuss at the negotiating table," added the official.

The diplomatic Quartet -- European Union, Russia, United Nations and United States -- was expected in the coming days to issue a statement inviting both sides to resume direct talks suspended since 2008.

The Palestinians said it would be modelled on a Quartet statement issued in Moscow in March that called on Israel to halt settlement construction and for the direct talks to lead to a final peace deal in two years.

Israeli media reported a forum of seven top cabinet members had decided to reject the Quartet statement, which could call on Israel to renew a limited 10-month West Bank settlement freeze, set to expire in September.

"The Quartet declaration should allow the Palestinians to descend the tree they have climbed by refusing negotiations, but it must not be binding on Israel," Israeli media outlets quoted an unnamed minister as saying.

The minister said Israel would reject the appeal from the Quartet but accept a parallel invitation issued by Washington that would be "more balanced."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat charged that Netanyahu's right-wing government was not serious about peace.

"The announcement by the Israeli government rejecting the statement of the international Quartet before it is even issued shows that Israel is persisting in its rejection of a serious peace process," Erakat told AFP.

"(This) clearly proves that this government has other interests besides peace and stability in the region," he added.

Erakat also rejected Israel's decision on Sunday to deploy 23 caravans in eight West Bank settlements to serve as classrooms, saying it was "placing additional obstacles" in the way of US efforts to revive the peace process.

Netanyahu arrived in Greece on Monday, the first Israeli prime minister to visit a country that has traditionally been pro-Arab and did not recognise Israel's existence until 1991.

Israel has repeatedly called for direct talks with the Palestinians but has refused to completely halt settlement activity, which it considers a "precondition," but which the Palestinians say was part of previous agreements.

The presence of some 500,000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank, including mostly-Arab east Jerusalem, has been one of the most contentious issues in the decades-old conflict.

The Palestinians rejected the partial freeze on settlements as insufficient because it did not include east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and annexed to its capital in a move not recognised by the international community.

The Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

US envoy George Mitchell has been shuttling between the two sides for months to relaunch direct peace talks. In May Israel and the Palestinians began indirect US-brokered negotiations.

The last round of direct talks collapsed when Israel launched a devastating three-week offensive in Gaza in December 2008 in a bid to halt rocket fire from the enclave ruled by the militant Hamas movement.


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