Palestinians on Sunday accused US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of undermining progress toward Mideast peace talks after she praised Israel for offering to curb some Jewish settlement construction.
After meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders during a visit Saturday, Clinton called for an unconditional resumption of peace talks and welcomed Israel's offer for a slowdown in settlement activity.
But Palestinians rejected the idea of resuming talks, reiterating their demand that Israel must first freeze all construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - lands they claim for a future state.
"I believe that the US condones continued settlement expansion," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said in a rare public chiding of Washington.
"Calling for a resumption of negotiations despite continued settlement construction doesn't help because we have tried this way many times," Khatib added. "Negotiations are about ending the occupation and settlement expansion is about entrenching the occupation."
Palestinians expressed deep disappointment and frustration at Clinton's words during a visit aimed at salvaging President Barack Obama's foundering peace efforts.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Arabic language Asharq Al-Awsat daily there is "no possibility to resume talks under the current circumstances and the Israeli intransigence."
After taking office at the start of this year, Obama buoyed Palestinian hopes with his outreach to the Muslim world and an initially tough stance urging a full freeze to all settlement construction.
But after making little headway with the Israelis in recent months, Clinton urged the Palestinian leader in a face-to-face meeting on Saturday to renew talks, which broke down late last year, without conditions.
Then, at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Saturday, she praised Netanyahu's offer to curb some settlement construction.
"What the prime minister has offered in specifics on restraints on a policy of settlements ... is unprecedented," Clinton added. "I want to see both sides as soon as possible begin negotiations."
Netanyahu has said he will not create any new settlements in the West Bank and indicated he would temporarily suspend any plans for future construction. But he has insisted Israel would not limit building in east Jerusalem, which it annexed after capturing it. And he has refused to call off the construction of 3,000 apartments in the West Bank that already have been approved.
The Palestinians say the settlements are undermining their dream of independence by gobbling up large chunks of territory they claim as part of a future state. Some 500,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967.
Israel promised to halt all settlement activity in a 2003 peace plan, but construction has never stopped.
Palestinian President Abbas has been badly weakened by the perception among his public that he has repeatedly buckled under US pressure. With Palestinian elections scheduled for January, Abbas is wary of again caving in to Washington.
Reflecting the pressure that Abbas faces, a radical Palestinian group based in Syria accused the US of being a dishonest broker.
"Clinton's statements are an affront to all those who bet on a peace settlement. It is a message to the Arabs that the US would always be on Israel's side," said Maher Taher, the Syrian representative for the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Senior Palestinian officials are waiting to see what comes out of Clinton's talks with Arab foreign ministers in Morocco this week. While disappointed with the US stance, Abbas wants to avoid a confrontation with Washington.
A rare departure came in an editorial published in the Jordan Times, a semi-independent daily that frequently reflects government policy.
"If Washington cannot conjure up the necessary political will to make Israel end what the entire international community considers an illegal act ... what hope is there that Washington can make Israel go much further under any peace agreement?" it asked.
Jordanian King Abdullah II flew to Cairo on Sunday for talks with Egypt's president. The Al-Shorouk daily cited an unidentified diplomat as saying their meeting would focus on "Arab demands from the United States after it failed to fulfill its promise to stop the Israeli settlement building."
Encouraged by the US backing, Netanyahu on Sunday urged the Palestinians to "come to their senses" and restart peace talks.
"The peace process is in the Israeli interest and also in the Palestinian interest. It is important and we are committed to it and we hope that as we are prepared to begin talks without delay, we shall find the Palestinians sharing the same attitude," he told his Cabinet.