New settlements will close door to peace, warn Palestinians

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The Independent Online

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, has written to Tony Blair and 95 other world leaders urging them to stop Israel building 3,500 homes between the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim and Arab east Jeru-salem. If they are built, he told The Independent, it would "close the door to peace".

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, has written to Tony Blair and 95 other world leaders urging them to stop Israel building 3,500 homes between the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim and Arab east Jeru-salem. If they are built, he told The Independent, it would "close the door to peace".

Israeli officials confirmed that Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, had given a green light to the project, originally drawn up six years ago. The homes would link Ma'aleh Adumim, a commuter town of 30,000 people four and a half miles east of Jerusalem, to Israel's disputed capital and cement its grip on the eastern side of town. The Palestinians want that as the capital of their future state. Mr Sharon committed himself under the international road map for peace to freeze settlement activity and to dismantle more than 100 "unauthorised" settlement outposts, which he has failed to do.

Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, said everyone who had looked at scenarios for final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state over the past five years had placed Ma'aleh Adumim inside Israeli sovereign territory. He said: "Building in a place where there is an international consensus that it's going to stay in Israel in no way undermines the ability of the Palestinians to create a viable, contiguous Palestinian state."

But the Palestinians denied they were part of any consensus. "We never accepted Ma'aleh Adumim would remain part of Israel," Mr Erekat said. Settlement expansion and the extension of Israel's West Bank separation barrier, he insisted, pre-empted and prejudged final-status negotiations.

The question he posed for President George Bush and Mr Blair was: "If the issue of Jerusalem, the issue of borders, the issue of water and the issue of settlements are determined by the Israeli wall and settlements, what is left for negotiation? How do you translate President Bush's two-state solution to a realistic political track, while the land that's supposed to constitute a Palestinian state is eaten up by settlements and walls?"

So far, the Palestinians are not breaking off negotiations. Mr Erekat said: "I'm proposing to break off the decision of the Israeli government, not negotiations. I'm proposing that the Israelis enter into permanent-status negotiations immediately. The choice is between settlements and peace. Nobody can have both."

As well as Messrs Blair and Bush, the recipients of yesterday's Palestinian appeal included Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, Russia's Vladimir Putin and the European Union.

Mr Sharon has resisted calls to go straight to negotiations for a final peace agreement. He prefers to tread cautiously. Israelis, like Palestinians, are ready to give a chance to Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat's more flexible successor as Palestinian leader. But neither side takes anything on trust. Israeli troops have pulled back from Tulkarm and the neighbouring refugee camp. Checkpoints were also removed from the road linking Tulkarm to Palestinian villages.

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