Reversing comments he made in New York last week to the effect that the Palestinians have dropped their preconditions to negotiations with Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that the Palestinian demand for an absolute settlement freeze was holding up negotiations.
The demand for a total settlement freeze was "strange," Netanyahu told the cabinet at its weekly meeting, pointing out that the PA never made similar demands of any previous Israeli government.
The prime minister, according to officials in the meeting, said the PA's continued insistence on a total freeze was the reason there had been no breakthrough that would lead to negotiations.
Netanyahu's envoy on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chief-of-staff Michael Herzog are currently in the US holding talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell. These talks, meant to pave the way for negotiations, are taking place far away from the limelight, with the State Department issuing no statement whatsoever on their content.
The Palestinians are also in Washington meeting with Mitchell.
Following last week's tripartite meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly of Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that the Palestinians had dropped any preconditions to restarting talks, something the Palestinians later denied.
He told the cabinet on Thursday that the US has come out against a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks. Obama originally called for a total settlement freeze, but has since somewhat backed away from it.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported that Fatah has told Abbas he must not resume talks unless Israel stops all settlement construction, quoting Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Dahlan as saying, "Settlements and negotiations are two parallel lines that will never meet."
Fatah's Central Committee, the movement's key decision-making body, met earlier this week with Abbas to discuss his options, and the message on the settlement freeze has been interpreted as a way to help him stand up to US pressure to restart talks with Israel even without a total settlement construction halt.
Dahlan was quoted as saying he believed the Obama administration was "putting pressure on the Palestinians since they are the weakest party in the process."
"There is systematic backtracking by President Obama," Dahlan said. "There is a changing of the foundations and reference points of the negotiations, and therefore I don't expect a quick return to negotiations."
Meanwhile, US State Department officials were particularly tight-lipped followed Middle East envoy George Mitchell's meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Obama administration didn't issue a statement following the separate conversations as it usually does, and State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to offer any details on the parleys when asked by reporters on Thursday.
Kelly did note that Mitchell met with Israeli officials Yitzhak Molcho and Mike Herzog on Thursday morning after holding consultations on Wednesday as well. That sit-down was followed by talks with Palestinians.
Kelly also said he was unfamiliar with reports that Israel was considering approving additional settlement construction near Bethlehem, but reiterated the US position that "the two sides should refrain from the kind of activities and rhetoric that would prove to be any kind of impediment to the resumption of these talks," as well as live up to their road map obligations.
"For Israelis, that means an end to settlement activity," he said. "For the Palestinians, it means taking responsibility for security and ending the kind of divisive rhetoric. And for Arab states, it means steps towards normalization with Israel."