OBAMA IN MIDEAST TALKS

JERUSALEM - US President Barack Obama's summit this week with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders does not signal a full relaunch of peace talks, which remain blocked by profound disagreement, a Palestinian official said yesterday.

JERUSALEM - US President Barack Obama's summit this week with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders does not signal a full relaunch of peace talks, which remain blocked by profound disagreement, a Palestinian official said yesterday.

"The meeting does not mean negotiations," a spokesperson for President Mahmoud Abbas said after the White House announced the first encounter between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the latter took office in March.

The summit will take place tomorrow in New York during the UN General Assembly, US officials said. They called it a mark of Obama's personal commitment to Middle East peace but played down the prospect of major immediate developments.

However, neither side has shown any shift away from the deadlock that was evident on Friday when Obama's special envoy George Mitchell completed a week shuttling around the region.

Each blamed the other for a failure to relaunch talks that were suspended in December while Israel and Hamas fought in the Gaza Strip. Many analysts doubt Obama's ability to end six decades of conflict in his quest to stabilise the Middle East.

Israel welcomed a meeting "without preconditions". But Abbas spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdainah repeated Palestinian demands, echoed by Washington since Obama took office in January, that Netanyahu should halt settlement expansion before full-blown talks resume.

On Friday, Netanyahu offered Mitchell a nine-month freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, Israeli officials said, adding that Mitchell was pressing for a one-year freeze. Abbas wants an open-ended halt that also includes East Jerusalem.

Abu Rdainah also reiterated a demand that Israel commit from the start of negotiations to reaching permanent resolutions of all the core issues of the conflict - including borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, who highlights the fact that Abbas's authority is limited since Islamist Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, has suggested talks focus on interim improvements in security and prosperity.

Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, addressing worshippers in Gaza on the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, reiterated Hamas would not recognise any compromise agreement Abbas made with Israel.- Reuters

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