Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:09 pm (KSA) 09:09 am (GMT)

Israeli settlements harmful to peace talks: Rice

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned on Sunday that Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories must not block any final Middle East peace agreement.

"The actions and the announcements that are taking place are having a negative effect on the atmosphere of the negotiations," Rice said in one of the clearest criticisms Washington has made of the settlements.

"The U.S. will not consider these activities to affect any final-status negotiations including final borders," she said about the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

"No party should be taking steps at this point that could prejudice the outcome of the negotiations," Rice told reporters after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Israel decided last week to build another 1,300 houses for Jewish settlers in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem, infuriating the Palestinians who want the mostly Arab sector of the city as their future capital.

She made the remarks on her 17th visit to the region in less than two years, a trip aimed at injecting fresh impetus to Middle East peace talks that have made little progress since they were re-launched in November.

The talks have not only been hobbled by continued settlement expansions, but also by violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and a worsening Israeli political crisis.

"The situation in the Middle East, like always, is complicated," Israeli Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni told reporters before meeting Rice earlier on Sunday.

"And while negotiating with the Palestinians, we need to address also difficulties on the ground, especially the situation in the Gaza Strip."

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is due to meet Rice later, renewed a commitment to the 2003 peace roadmap at the U.S. meeting in November that revived the negotiations, and pledged to reach a deal by the end of 2008.

Under the roadmap the two sides agreed to end violence and freeze settlement construction, but Israel has insisted on its right to build in those areas it aims to keep in any future peace agreement.

"Jerusalem is Jerusalem. The West Bank is the West Bank," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told reporters earlier Sunday.

The international community, including the United States, has never recognized Israel's claim to the entire city.

"We asked Dr. Rice to help us to compel Israel to adhere to its obligations regarding the settlements because we consider them the biggest obstacle in the way of the peace process," Abbas said at the news conference with Rice.

Negotiations have also been overshadowed by a political crisis in Israel springing from a probe into Olmert's past financial dealings, threatening his political future and the survival of the fragile ruling coalition.

Earlier on Sunday Rice met Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has warned that his Labour party would join the opposition in voting to dissolve parliament if Olmert's Kadima party does not name a new premier.

Rice has pressed Israel to take concrete steps to ease freedom of movement in the West Bank, including lifting more of the over 500 roadblocks and checkpoints across the territory.

"I understand the security considerations as well as anyone but the obligation was undertaken to improve the lives of the Palestinians," she told reporters on Saturday.

Rice also held a joint meeting with the heads of the negotiation teams -- former premier Ahmed Qorei for the Palestinians and Livni, who is widely favoured to succeed Olmert in the absence of early elections.

Rice's visit comes a year after Hamas's bloody takeover of Gaza, where Israel is mulling whether to launch a major offensive to halt rocket fire despite Egyptian efforts to forge a truce.

A top Israeli official told AFP there had been "significant progress" in negotiations but that the truce would not include the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

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