Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday new Israeli settlement activity was posing an obstacle to revived Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts launched in the U.S. town of Annapolis last month.
Plans for new Israeli settlement building this month have drawn rare criticism from the United States, as well as the European Union, and raised fears of widening the rift in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years.
"I think the obstacle that hampers negotiations with the Israelis particularly concerns the construction of settlements. And we have said clearly that Israel must stop the construction and the expansion of settlements," Abbas told a news conference.
The first round of peace talks following Annapolis opened in discord last week after Palestinians demanded a halt to Israeli plans to build new homes at a settlement near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and the Palestinians as Abu Ghneim.
One of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's closest confidants, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, told Army Radio that settlement growth was "largely limited" to the major settlement blocs, which Israel hopes to keep as part of any final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Ramon said Israel would compensate the Palestinians by giving them land in exchange for the settlement blocs, though he did not say how large these land swaps might be.
Abbas said some of Ramon's comments had not been helpful.
"What Ramon said on the continuation of the building of settlements is a declaration that does not serve the cause of peace. And if it's the official policy of Israel, I think we're heading towards real difficulties in the near future," Abbas said through a translator.
"Settlements must stop to prepare the path to proper talks, talks that can lead us to a definite solution to known questions such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security...to get to a real peace treaty between us and the Israelis," Abbas said.
Abbas was speaking in Paris the day after an international donors conference in the French capital raised pledges of $7.4 billion for the Palestinian Authority.
The Paris meeting was the financial sequel to the U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis last month, which relaunched formal peace talks with the goal of reaching an agreement on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.
Abbas was cautious on the likelihood of reaching the target. "We have no guarantee on this. It is possible that 2008 will be the year of peace and it's possible that it won't be."
"We have found agreement for the solution to come in 2008...If intentions are good, particularly from the Israeli side, I don't think there will be obstacles to realise this objective, the Palestinian state," he said.
Abbas said he supported a proposal French President Nicolas Sarkozy floated during the Paris conference to deploy an international force to help Palestinian security forces.
"We're very favourable to this idea launched by...Sarkozy. We hope it will soon be an international position," he said.