Middle East

U.N.'s Ban urges Israel settlement freeze

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, meeting officials in Occupied Jerusalem on Wednesday, called on Israel to refrain from settlement activity and offer the Palestinians a "goodwill gesture" to help kick-start peace talks.

But he appeared to be rebuffed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he considered the issue of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and east Occupied Jerusalem something to be discussed during negotiations, not before.

"I have told clearly to President Peres this morning and this afternoon to the prime minister that they should refrain from further settlement," Ban told a press conference after talks with Netanyahu.

"This can be one of the ways of expressing a goodwill gesture," he said.

But Netanyahu appeared to reject taking such a measure.

"I think the question of settlements should be part of the final peace talks. It can't be a precondition," he said.

Ban is visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories for a series of meetings intended to convince both sides to continue so-called exploratory talks they started last month in Amman.

Earlier on Wednesday, after meeting with Israel's President Shimon Peres, Ban, he stressed that Israeli action was crucial to keeping those talks alive.

"Israel's cooperation in creating a positive dynamic is vital," he said.

"I hope that these talks can be sustained. I talked with President Peres about ways in which the U.N. and the international community might support their talks."

The five rounds of talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, sponsored by the peacemaking Quartet, ended without a deal to continue discussions or return to direct negotiations.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel builds settlements, and they want a framework for negotiations that would base border discussions on the lines that preceded the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel says it wants talks without preconditions, but Ban said Tuesday it was key for the Jewish state to offer gestures, which could include concessions on the issue of settlement activity on Palestinian land.

In an interview with a small group of reporters, including AFP, in Amman late Tuesday, Ban said he expected "a gesture of goodwill by both sides."

But it would be "more important for the Israelis to show such a gesture of goodwill to create the favorable atmosphere," so Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas can justify staying in talks, the U.N. leader said.

Ban said he would tell Israeli leaders that restricting settlement construction could be a gesture of goodwill, and would urge Palestinian president Abbas to return to talks.

The United Nations, a Quartet member along with the United States, European Union and Russia, considers Israel's construction in the occupied West Bank and east Occupied Jerusalem to be a violation of international law.

Settlement construction "really hampers" reconciliation and "many Palestinian people have been really suffering from this," Ban said on Tuesday.

"I am going to urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to show some political will, courage and vision so that this long overdue vision of two states, where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and security, can be realized."

Ban's schedule in Occupied Jerusalem includes talks with Peres, Netanyahu and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He will then head to the West Bank town of Ramallah for meetings with Abbas and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad.

The trip, which will also include a stop in the Gaza Strip, comes amid a new stalemate in contacts between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Amman talks were part of a timeline by the Quartet to bring the two sides to the table for the first time since direct talks broke down in September 2010 over the issue of settlement construction.

The Quartet on October 26 asked both sides to submit comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months as a precursor to the resumption of talks, something the Palestinians say they have done.

Israel says it considers the three-month period to have begun with the first rounds of talks in Amman on January 3.

The international community has urged both sides to continue talking, but in recent days reports have suggested that the talks sponsors believe a package of confidence-building measures will be necessary to lure the Palestinians back.





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