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Israel accepts Quartet call for peace talks

Oct 2, 2011, 5:29 p.m.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint news conference with his Czech counterpart Petr Necas (not pictured) after their meeting in Jerusalem September 15, 2011. REUTERS/Gali Tabbon/Pool

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel accepted on Sunday a call by international mediators to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, who quickly reaffirmed their refusal to negotiate until settlement-building stops on land they seek for state.

"Israel welcomes the Quartet call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions," the statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.

"Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay."

The four mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- responded to a Palestinian application for full membership at the U.N. on September 23 by urging both sides to resume talks within a month.

Israel and the United States oppose the unilateral bid launched by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after two decades of on-again, off-again negotiations failed to establish a Palestinian state.

Asked about Netanyahu's acceptance of the Quartet's initiative, Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Abbas, said "returning to negotiations requires Israel to commit to stopping settlement."

Abu Rdainah said Israel also must recognize the "1967 borders" lines that existed before its occupation of the West Bank in a Middle East war that year.

Citing security concerns, Netanyahu has balked at U.S. President Barack Obama's proposal to use those lines as the starting point for statehood negotiations with the Palestinians, who have yet to respond formally to the Quartet's call.

Complicating the forum's efforts and drawing a chorus of international criticism, Israel announced plans on Tuesday to build 1,100 new homes in Gilo, on annexed land near Jerusalem.

Israeli cabinet ministers who initially balked at accepting the Quartet proposal changed their minds on Sunday, at least in part as a bid to ease global anger at the latest settlement construction plan, an Israeli political source said.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem, including the eastern areas captured in 1967 as its capital, a claim that is not recognized internationally. It says Gilo will remain in its control under any future peace deal.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, an enclave controlled by Abbas's Hamas Islamist rivals since 2007.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas home to 2.5 million Palestinians. Israeli settlements, Palestinians say, will deny them a viable country. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the land.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a partial moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements. He has given no indication he would be prepared to agree to another freeze to coax Palestinians back into talks.

The Quartet, saying it aimed for a peace agreement by the end of 2012, has urged both sides to refrain from "provocative actions."

In accepting the Quartet's call, Israel said it had "some concerns" about the proposal, such as the 2012, the Israeli source told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Israel also wants the talks to focus on core conflict issues such as refugees and Jerusalem, and not only borders and security as the Quartet has proposed, said the source.

Despite these reservations, Israeli cabinet ministers agreed to accept the proposal figuring the Palestinians "would in any case not agree to attend these negotiations," the source said.

At the U.N. on Friday, a Security Council panel on admitting new members to the U.N. met for the first time on the Palestinian membership bid.

It was the beginning of an assessment process that will pit the aid-dependent Palestinians against Israel, and the United States, which has said it would veto the bid in the Security Council if necessary.

Some diplomats have suggested the issue could stay with the membership committee for weeks or months before it is passed back to the Security Council for a vote, giving mediators more time to try to restart peace talks.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Michael Roddy/Rosalind Russell)

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