Abbas consults aides on fate of Mideast talks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbassought the backing of dozens of senior Palestinians on Saturday for his refusal to keep negotiating with Israel without a slowdown in West Bank settlement construction.

However, the outcome of the meeting of leading members of the PLO, Abbas’ Fatah movement and small Palestinian factions will likely not be the last word from the Palestinians. A deadline for a final decision was postponed twice in recent days, and a U.S. mediator now has until Friday to try to avert a collapse of Mideast peace talks that were launched in Washington just a month ago.

As Abbas heads into a fateful week of diplomacy, the backing of senior PLO and Fatah officials would strengthen his hand.

Abbas was to brief the group about U.S. envoy George Mitchell’s latest unsuccessful attempts to narrow the gaps.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is adamant about not extending a 10-month-old moratorium on West Bank housing starts that expired a week ago, despite appeals by the U.S. and the European Union to keep the building curb in place.

Abbas says there’s no point in negotiating while Israeli settlements keep taking over more of the lands the Palestinians want for a future independent state.

“President Abbas’ position is clear: no negotiations under the shadow of settlement construction,” a top Abbas aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said before Saturday’s meeting. However, he said contacts with the U.S. would continue.

Mitchell, who spent four days this week shuttling between Abbas and Netanyahu, is now trying to enlist the help of Arab leaders, and was to meet with Qatari leaders on Saturday.

In remarks published Friday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit issued surprising criticism of the Palestinian position of making talks contingent on the settlement building restrictions, saying the sides should concentrate on drawing the borders of a Palestinian state.

In the West Bank, PLO and Fatah officials have overwhelmingly spoken out against continued negotiations.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said the international community’s failure to get Israel to halt settlement expansion does not bode well for the talks, where much more explosive issues will be on the table, such as the partition of Jerusalem. President Barack Obama wants Abbas and Netanyahu to negotiate the terms and borders of a Palestinian state within a year.

Ashrawi said there’s a limit to Palestinian flexibility.

“The whole world is demanding that he (Netanyahu) stop settlements, and he is telling the world that Israel is above the law,” she said. “If things continue like this, if before beginning final status negotiations, the U.S. says it is unable to pressure Israel, and if the world is looking on, and no one is able to tell Israel to stop settlements, then what is the benefit of negotiations?”

The international community holds that the dozens of settlements on lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, now home to half a million Israelis, violate international law.

Briefing his staff on Friday, Netanyahu voiced frustration with the Palestinian position, noting that Palestinians didn’t insist on a settlement freeze during the past 17 years of intermittent negotiations. He said it wasn’t easy for him to get his hard-line coalition to back the initial moratorium, and that some construction during the next year is unlikely to affect the negotiations.