- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday invited the Palestinians to sit down immediately to talk peace, but the Palestinian leader rebuffed the call, saying that Israel must first halt all West Bank settlement construction.

The issue of Israeli settlements has emerged as a major sticking point in efforts to restart peace talks, which halted shortly before Mr. Netanyahu took office in March. The Palestinians have been bolstered by the United States’ insistence that Israel freeze the settlement construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu, who for years was a vocal critic of Mideast peace efforts, recently reversed himself and for the first time and endorsed the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a final peace agreement. However, he attached a series of conditions rejected by the Palestinians, who in turn have been cool to his offer.

“There is no reason Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and I should not meet, anywhere in this country, to advance the political process,” Mr. Netanyahu told the weekly meeting of his Cabinet.

Mr. Netanyahu said he already has made a series of gestures, such as the removal of several military checkpoints in the West Bank, meant to improve the Palestinian economy.

The Palestinians have been skeptical about Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions. They say the Israeli gestures are not enough to revive an economy beaten down by years of conflict, and they fear that Mr. Netanyahu is using his economic program as a way to divert attention from the core diplomatic issues of negotiating a final peace deal.

Mr. Abbas has refused to meet Mr. Netanyahu and reiterated his stance at a news conference Sunday that for negotiations on the key issues to resume, there must be “a complete halt to settlement activities.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, spent more than a year negotiating with Mr. Abbas. The peace talks yielded no major breakthroughs, and during that time, Israel continued to build up its settlements. Nearly 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians.

Israel agreed under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan to freeze all building in the West Bank. But it has not honored that 2003 obligation, saying the Palestinians have not fulfilled their commitment to crack down on militant groups.

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