Palestinian negotiators walk out of talks with Israel

Move comes as Israel backs off plans to build thousands of new settlements in the occupied West Bank

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration to protest against US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit on Nov. 6, 2013 in Bethlehem.
Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

The Palestinian delegation has abandoned the current round of U.S.-brokered talks with Israel due to a lack of progress, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday. The development comes one day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled plans for fresh construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The resignations mark a new low point for the talks, which resumed in July under the guidance of Secretary of State John Kerry. Officials from both sides have said the current talks have made little headway since they began in the summer. Abbas told an Egyptian TV interviewer that the negotiations had "stopped last week in light of the settlement announcements," referring to the planned expansion of settlement housing announced last week but now apparently suspended by Netanyahu.  All Israeli settlement on land occupied during the war of 1967 is deemed illegal by the U.N. Security Council, and the Obama administration reiterated last week that the U.S. does "not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity."

But  Abbas also suggested the negotiations would continue even if the Palestinian peace delegation sticks to its decision.

"Either we can convince it to return, and we're trying with them, or we form a new delegation," he said.

The Palestinian leader said he would need about a week to resume the talks.

In a statement to Reuters TV on Wednesday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat did not elaborate on the report of his resignation but said the sessions with Israel were frozen.

Since the talks got underway after a three-year break, Israel has announced plans for several thousand new Jewish settler homes in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where more than 500,000 Israelis live today.

The disclosure last Wednesday that Israel's Housing Ministry had commissioned separate plans for nearly 24,000 more homes for Israelis in the two areas raised U.S. concern and drew Palestinian condemnation. Netanyahu, an advocate of settlement construction, intervened late on Tuesday, ordering a halt to the projects and saying he had no prior knowledge of them.

The Israeli leader said he feared such settlement activity could trigger an international outcry that would divert attention from Israel's lobbying against a deal between world powers and Iran. Israel’s government is concerned that nuclear talks between Tehran and Western leaders would ease economic sanctions on the country without dismantling its nuclear-enrichment capabilities.

Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu's hawkish Likud party, made clear on Wednesday that Israel would continue settlement building, while being more careful in the future about announcing it.

"The question is always about the timing. Is the timing right? Is the timing wrong?" Shalom told Israel Radio. "We need the support of the United States on the Iranian issue and have to do our utmost to lower any tensions with it."

In Washington, the State Department sought to downplay the reported resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team, saying it knew there would be ups and downs in the talks and pointing to Abbas's statement that the talks would continue with the old negotiators or a new team.

"The fact that President Abbas went out and reaffirmed his commitment today ... is a good sign, and we'll continue to pursue it on the same timeframe," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. She said Kerry spoke to Abbas and Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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