, CAIRO, Dec 9 – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas Thursday stood firm on his demand for a halt to settlement building before talks with Israel can resume, as US officials scrambled to rescue the collapsing peace process.
"We will not accept negotiations as long as settlements continue," Abbas told reporters in Cairo after more than one hour of talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
It was not clear if Abbas had also ruled out indirect talks with Israel, which other Palestinian officials have said are likely to be the immediate way forward in Washington\’s stuttering attempts to secure a comprehensive peace deal in 2011.
The Palestinian leader said discussions with Mubarak had focused on "what comes after" Washington on Tuesday admitted that weeks-long efforts to persuade Israel to freeze settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem had failed.
Abbas, apparently still leaving the door open, said a final decision on talks would be taken in consultation with Arab and Palestinian officials.
"There must be clear references for peace… and we will discuss all that with the follow-up committee, the Palestinian leadership and after that there will be a decision."
Abbas has in the past sought the endorsement of the Arab follow-up committee on the question of resuming the US-brokered direct peace talks with Israel.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has said Washington should recognise an independent Palestinian state in response to Israel\’s refusal to freeze settlement building.
Erakat and Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad were heading to Washington on Thursday for talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and top negotiator Isaac Molho preceded them there.
The Palestinian and Israeli officials will be attending a conference in Washington during which Clinton was to give a keynote address outlining a new strategy for advancing the peace process.
US officials said on Wednesday Washington was holding out hope a peace deal can still be reached next year, a target it set as the chief broker before direct talks resumed in Washington in September amid fanfare but little optimism from the two sides.
"We\’re shifting our approach, but are still focused on the goal of a framework agreement within a year … We believe that\’s still achievable," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters in Washington.
"Obviously a lot of hard work is going have to be done, it\’s not going to be easy, but we haven\’t changed our objective" set in August of reaching a peace agreement within 12 months, he said.
Direct talks were re-launched on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus but stalled three weeks later when Israel refused to renew a moratorium on settlement building.
The Palestinians have repeatedly stressed they will not resume direct peace talks unless there is a halt to building in the occupied West Bank as well as a freeze in annexed east Jerusalem, which they consider the capital of their future state.
Erakat said Abbas, who on Wednesday said the peace process was in crisis, was to hold separate talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Arab leaders over the next few days.
"The president will consult with the Arab brothers before responding to the American ideas," he said Wednesday in Cairo.
The Palestinian ambassador to Cairo Barakat al-Farra told Egypt\’s government newspaper Al-Ahram on Thursday that Abbas would travel later to Jordan from Cairo for consultations with King Abdullah II.
Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries to have peace treaties with Israel and both countries are a must-stop for Palestinian leaders for consultations when the going gets rough.