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Qatar raps Israel as Kerry seeks Arab support for talks

(Reuters) – Qatar faulted Israel for building Jewish settlements on Sunday after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry briefed Arab diplomats in an effort to garner support for nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The comment by Qatari Foreign Minister Qatari Khaled al-Attiya, while consistent with long-standing Arab positions, may have been less than what Kerry might have hoped for as he seeks to build momentum for the talks which resumed on July 29.

“There are obstacles,” al-Attiya said through an interpreter at a news conference with Kerry after the U.S. secretary of state met the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab officials.

“We are talking about settlements,” he added. “Each time a round of negotiations is supposed to start, it’s preceded by a declaration of continued settlements or the announcement of the establishment of new settlements and this is a source of concern for us and directly affects the negotiations.”

Kerry, who is to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over dinner in London, said it was vital that all sides, including the Arab world, offer support to both parties as they try to make peace.

“This meeting is almost as important as the negotiations themselves because the Arab League and the Arab community’s support for a final status agreement is essential to the achievement of that agreement,” Kerry told reporters.

“It is a critical component in creating momentum, and energy and seriousness of purpose in these talks,” he added.

The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a nearly three-year hiatus is one of Kerry’s major achievements since taking office on February 1, but it is unclear if they have made any progress.

U.S. officials have refused to provide any information about the substance of the talks, declining even to say how many times Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met since the talks began.

Kerry publically reiterated his private call on the European Union on Saturday to postpone a planned ban on EU financial assistance to Israeli organizations in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying this would help the talks.

The EU imposed restrictions in July, citing its frustration over the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in territory captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Middle East War.

The guidelines render Israeli entities operating in the occupied territories ineligible for EU grants, prizes or loans, beginning next year.

They angered Israel’s rightist government, which accused the Europeans of harming Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and responded by announcing curbs on EU aid projects for thousands of West Bank Palestinians.

Palestinians praised the guidelines as a concrete step against settlement construction on Israeli-occupied land, which they fear will deny them a viable state.

On Saturday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU would send a team, headed by a senior EU diplomat, to Israel on Monday to make sure the implementation of the new guidelines was done sensitively.

“We of course want to continue having a strong relationship with Israel,” she said.

Jewish settler leaders say the aid they receive from Europe is minimal. But many in Israel worry about possible knock-on effects the EU steps may have on individuals or companies based in Israel that might be involved in business in the settlements, deemed illegal by the international community.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Patrick Graham)

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