Arab ministers agreed yesterday to give the United States another month to try to persuade Israel to renew curbs on West Bank settlement construction and keep Mideast peace talks from collapsing.
The one-month grace period followed a frantic effort by the Obama administration to broker a compromise as the sides faced rising friction over the stalemate. Underscoring the potential for violence, Israeli troops killed two senior Hamas militants in the West Bank.
The Palestinians have said they won't return to the negotiating table unless Israel renews its moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements, which expired last week after 10 months. Israel has refused to resinstate the moratorium, though it is considering compromises.
"The Israeli government was given the choice between peace and settlements, and it has chosen settlements," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "It (Israel) alone bears the responsibility for this."
Foreign ministers from the 22-member Arab League warned Israel of the dangerous consequences of continuing settlement construction in the Palestinian territories and east Jerusalem — lands the Palestinians claim for a future state.
"We support the Palestinian president's position calling for a complete halt of all settlement activities in order to resume negotiation," the Arab League's deputy Ahmad Bin Helli said as he read a statement issued after the ministerial meeting.
But the ministers also said they would resume meetings in a month to study alternatives and decide on next steps, giving the United States some breathing room.
The Israeli government had no immediate comment.
Officials in Washington said the Arab League has made clear its support for continued US efforts to create the conditions necessary for resuming peace negotiations.
"We appreciate the Arab League's statement of support for our efforts to create conditions that will allow direct talks to move forward," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "We will continue to work with the parties, and all our international partners, to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that end."
Direct US-backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began on September 2, following several months of indirect contacts, then stalled over the settlement dispute.
Aides have said Abbas wants to avoid the impression that he is quitting talks, and instead sought to buy more time for US diplomacy. "The US effort should continue to safeguard what remains of the peace process," senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
Delegates who were at yesterday's meeting said the ministers made their decision after Abbas explained that he faced stiff opposition to returning to the peace talks in the Palestinian territories. They also said some of Friday's discussions centered on the need to delay a final decision until US congressional elections in early November so the Obama administration would not face as much political pressure.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special Mideast envoy George Mitchell called Arab leaders throughout the week, urging them to persuade the Palestinians not to walk away from the talks.
Friday's statement came despite a proposal by moderate Arab nations led by Egypt and Jordan for Abbas to return to indirect talks.
Some hard-line Arab states, including Syria, opposed any attempt to go back to the talks.
"I cannot see any benefit from this meeting," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who stayed away from the meeting and sent instead Syria's envoy to the Arab League.
Lebanon boycotted the discussions altogether because of a dispute with Libya.
The two Hamas gunmen, killed in a raid in the West Bank city of Hebron, were involved in the shooting deaths of four Israelis near the city on Aug. 31, just as new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were getting under way, the Israeli military said. Media aligned with Hamas in the Gaza Strip also said the men were behind the Hebron shooting.
Soldiers with jeeps and an armored bulldozer surrounded the militants' hideout before dawn. The military said the men rebuffed calls to surrender and began shooting at the troops outside. The soldiers then returned fire, killing both militants, the military said.