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Israel, PLO negotiators in row over settlements ahead of Kerry visit

Nov. 6, 2013 12:36 A.M. (Updated: Nov. 6, 2013 5:25 P.M.)
By: George Hale
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators broke down in a row over settlements on Tuesday, hours before Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem hoping to ease tensions between the two sides, Palestinian officials said.

PLO negotiators present at the secret meeting in Jerusalem accused Israeli officials of trying to discredit the Palestinian leadership by linking new settlement plans with the staged release of 104 long-term prisoners.

"There was an explosion in the meeting," according to one Palestinian official close to the talks who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions under a US-imposed media blackout.

Officials from both sides are increasingly ignoring Washington's insistence that they keep a lid on the first direct negotiations since talks broke down in September 2010 over settlement construction.

At the center of Tuesday's dispute were remarks by Israeli officials linking the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners days earlier with announcements of new settlement building in Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he never promised to freeze settlement construction during the talks.

"Israel is honoring all the understandings reached at the start of negotiations with the Palestinians," he told ministers of his Likud party, a source who attended the meeting said.

"The Palestinians knew very well that Israel would be building during the negotiations," he told them. "Israel did not take upon itself any limitations in this regard."

But Palestinian officials have flatly denied any such understandings.

In Ramallah on Sunday, President Mahmoud Abbas warned that linking the prisoner release to settlement construction "could blow up the talks."

Israel freed 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners Wednesday in line with commitments to the peace process but moved in tandem to ramp up settlement in annexed East Jerusalem.

Plans to build another 1,500 settler homes in the city's eastern sector came to light almost immediately after Israel began freeing the prisoners.

Charlie Hoyle and AFP contributed reporting.
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