U.S. Role In Mideast Talks Questioned A top Palestinian official cast doubt on Washington's ability to forge Middle East peace after the U.S. failed to persuade Israel to renew a limited freeze on construction in West Bank settlements -- the latest setback in the U.S. quest to broker a peace deal by next September.
NPR logo U.S. Role In Mideast Talks Questioned After Setback

U.S. Role In Mideast Talks Questioned After Setback

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Voice of Palestine radio station on Wednesday that Palestinians "will assess if the U.S. would be able ... to achieve success in its upcoming efforts." Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

A top Palestinian official is questioning Washington's ability to forge Middle East peace after a new breakdown in American attempts to revive negotiations.

The U.S. failure to persuade Israel to renew a limited freeze on construction in West Bank Jewish settlements, announced late Tuesday, was the latest setback for the Obama administration in its quest to broker a peace deal by next September. That goal, a top priority of the president, appears increasingly in doubt.

Senior Palestinian officials accused the U.S. of being toothless and Israel of ruining any chance of peace.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Wednesday that the Palestinians were assessing their options before responding to the American announcement. While accusing the Israelis of being intransigent, he also voiced disappointment with the Americans.

"We will assess if the U.S. would be able ... to achieve success in its upcoming efforts," Abed Rabbo told the Voice of Palestine radio station.

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"The one who couldn't make Israel limit its settlement activities in order to conduct serious negotiations, how can he be able to make Israel accept a fair solution," he added. "This is the big question now."

In Israel, reaction was predictably split along party lines. The right wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition celebrated what it touted as a victory.

"I am proud that Prime Minister Netanyahu stayed true to our Likud party ideology and rebuffed outside efforts to enact another pointless building freeze," Danny Danon, deputy speaker of Parliament, said in a statement.

Top aides to Netanyahu insisted Wednesday that the Palestinians were to blame by being inflexible on the settlement issue, and that Netanyahu is committed to peace.

"He doesn't enter negotiations just to negotiate," said Ron Dermer, a top adviser to the prime minister. "But he has red lines."

Netanyahu has come under relentless pressure to avoid another building moratorium in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem from the right wing of his coalition, many of whom are pro-settlements.

According to a senior Israeli official, the deal collapsed over several main sticking points. One issue was the scope of the freeze -- Israelis did not want it to include East Jerusalem. Another problem was the push to have a deal on borders within three months -- Israel didn't feel it was possible.

Since the last freeze ended in September, building has gone on at a furious pace in the occupied territories, with new housing starts in the past few days announced in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are pursuing their own agenda: unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have so far signed on. The Palestinian aim is to persuade as many countries as possible to back the bid and then take the fight to the United Nations.

Abbas is expected in Cairo on Thursday for consultations with Arab leaders.

The Israelis and Palestinians launched the latest round of peace talks on Sept. 2 at a White House ceremony, where they committed themselves to reaching a deal within a year. But weeks later, the talks broke down after an earlier, 10-month Israeli slowdown on settlement construction expired. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating if Israel continues to build homes for its citizens in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- captured territories that the Palestinians claim for a future independent state.

The Americans have been negotiating with Israel for weeks on the terms of a renewed settlement freeze in hopes of drawing the Palestinians back to the talks.

Last month, Netanyahu announced after a trip to the U.S. that he was close to an agreement in which he would slow settlement construction for three months in exchange for a package of American security and diplomatic assurances.

However, the sides were unable to wrap up the deal, in part because of uncertainty about what would happen after the three months.

The Americans had hoped the freeze would allow the sides to work out a deal on their future borders. Such an arrangement could make the settlement issue irrelevant, since Israel could resume construction in territories it expects to keep while halting building in areas given to the Palestinians.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported from Jerusalem for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press