Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Thursday stood firm on his demand for a halt to settlement building before talks with Israel can resume, as U.S. officials scrambled to rescue the collapsing peace process.
"We will not accept negotiations as long as settlements continue," Abbas told reporters in Cairo after more than one hour of talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"We have made this clear to the Americans: without a halt to settlements, no negotiations."
The Palestinian leader said he also wanted to hear explanations from U.S. officials as to why Washington failed to persuade Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
"What happened exactly"
"We want to know what happened exactly between America and Israel," he said, adding he would be meeting Washington's Middle East envoy George Mitchell when he returns to the region next week.
Other Palestinian officials have indicated that indirect talks, including with Mitchell, are likely to be the immediate way forward in Washington's stuttering attempts to secure a peace deal by the end of 2011.
Apparently still leaving the door open, Abbas said a final decision on talks with Israel would be taken in consultation with Arab and Palestinian officials.
"There must be clear references for peace... and we will discuss all that with the follow-up committee, the Palestinian leadership and after that there will be a decision."
Abbas has in the past sought the endorsement of the Arab follow-up committee on the question of resuming the U.S.-brokered direct peace talks with Israel.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has said Washington should recognize an independent Palestinian state in response to Israel's refusal to freeze settlement building.
The Palestinians have repeatedly stressed they will not resume direct peace talks unless there is a halt to building in the West Bank as well as a freeze in east Jerusalem, which they consider the capital of their future state.
In his comments on Thursday, Abbas reiterated that a future state should be within the 1967 boundaries -- before the Six-Day June 1967 war when Israel seized the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
"We will categorically refuse any Israeli presence on Palestinian land after the establishment of a Palestinian state," Abbas said.
EU, UN & AL rebukes
The European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League have rebuked Israel after its refusal to halt settlement construction forced Washington to drop efforts to re-launch Mideast peace talks.
Washington did not cast blame. But other members of the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators, which also includes the EU, the U.N. and Russia, sharply criticized Israel.
"I note with regret that Israel has not been in a position to accept an extension of the (settlement) moratorium, as requested by the U.S., the EU and the Quartet," Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said Thursday.
"The EU position on settlements is clear: They are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. Recent settlement-related developments, including in east Jerusalem, contradict efforts by the international community for successful negotiations," she said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed regret "that Israel will not heed the united call of the international community, as reflected by the Quartet, to extend the settlement restraint policy," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
"In spite of this setback, the secretary-general believes it is more important than ever to promote a negotiated endgame for a two-state solution," Nesirky said.
The Quartet's Mideast envoy, Tony Blair, avoided casting blame. He only said the U.S. move to pursue a settlement freeze was a "sensible decision in light of the impasse that we reached."
Talks in Washington
Erakat and Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad were heading to Washington on Thursday for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and top negotiator Isaac Molho preceded them there.
The Palestinian and Israeli officials will be attending a conference in Washington during which Clinton was to give a keynote address outlining a new strategy for advancing the peace process.
Asked about Erakat's mission to Washington, the Palestinian president stressed that his chief negotiator will only be meeting Clinton.
"There will be no secret meetings between him (Erakat) and Israeli officials."
The United States is holding out hope a peace deal can still be reached next year, a target it set as the chief broker before direct talks resumed in Washington in September amid fanfare but little optimism from the two sides.
"We're shifting our approach, but are still focused on the goal of a framework agreement within a year... We believe that's still achievable," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said on Wednesday.
"Obviously a lot of hard work is going have to be done, it's not going to be easy, but we haven't changed our objective" set in August of reaching a peace agreement within 12 months, he said.
Direct talks were re-launched on Sept. 2 after a 20-month hiatus but stalled three weeks later when Israel refused to renew a moratorium on settlement building.
The Palestinian ambassador to Cairo Barakat al-Farra told Egypt's government newspaper al-Ahram on Thursday that Abbas would travel later to Jordan from Cairo for consultations with King Abdullah II.