Palestinian officials said Saturday they'll decide in coming days whether to agree to a US proposal to return to indirect peace negotiations with Israel, after Washington's efforts to relaunch direct talks collapsed over Israeli settlement building.
The officials also expressed disappointment with the Obama administration, saying the US should have held Israel accountable for the latest impasse, instead of saying both parties bear responsibility.
Washington's proposed return to indirect negotiations comes days after the US announced that it has abandoned weeks-long efforts to persuade Israel to extend a settlement construction slowdown in exchange for security and diplomatic incentives. The Palestinians have said they will not resume negotiations as long as expanding settlements grab more of the land they want for a future state.
Both the European Union and the UN rebuked Israel this week over its refusal to stop building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War.
Despite the setback, the Obama administration wants to keep talking to both sides - separately - about the main components of any future peace deal, including the borders of a Palestinian state and security arrangements for Israel, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday.
The hope is that progress in indirect talks could pave the way for resuming direct negotiations.
Such shuttle diplomacy was tried unsuccessfully earlier this year. The Palestinians said they presented detailed positions on all key issues to Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, during those negotiations, but never heard back from Israel.
At the time, Israel said it would only reveal its positions in direct negotiations. It's not clear whether it would be more willing to do so now, in the framework proposed by Clinton on Friday.
There was no immediate comment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.
'Long way to go'
Netanyahu has endorsed a Palestinian state in principle, but has attached a string of conditions, and has not revealed his proposal for a border between Israel and Palestine. Doing so might cost him the crucial support of pro-settlers parties in his right-wing coalition.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is to decide on his next steps in coming days, in consultation with leading members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, his Fatah movement and Arab states, said Abbas aide Nabil Shaath.
Mitchell is to return to the region at the beginning of the week to brief Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite growing Palestinian skepticism about Washington's effectiveness, it's unlikely the Western-backed Abbas would reject a US offer of continued mediation.
Israel has argued that the Palestinians wasted time, and should have agreed to direct talks immediately after Netanyahu declared a freeze on housing starts in West Bank settlements in November 2009. The Palestinians held out for a full freeze that includes east Jerusalem, but were coaxed into negotiations by the US in early September.
Those talks broke down after Netanyahu refused to end the slowdown after it expired in late September.
In her speech Friday, Clinton expressed frustration, but also said both sides bear responsibility. "It is no secret that the parties have a long way to go and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires," she said.
Palestinian officials bristled at the characterization of equal responsibility, noting that the dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are illegal under international law.
"She didn't blame the Israelis who actually led to the failure of their (the Americans') efforts," Shaath said.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO's main decision-making body, the Executive Committee, criticized Washington's performance as mediator.
"Every time they face an obstacle put there by Israel, they go back and try to deal with procedural and technical issues," Ashrawi said, adding that Washington's credibility has suffered a further blow. "How can we believe them (the Americans) if they couldn't get Israel to restrain settlement building?"
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