NEW: The U.S. welcomes Israel's offer, says it follows Palestinians' agreement
An Israeli official says "every little building" becomes an international issue
A Palestinian official says Israel is "playing a game of deceit"
Israel says it wants no preconditions, Palestinians want them for negotiations
Israel announced Sunday it supports the Middle East Quartet’s call for direct talks with Palestinians to resume within a month.
In a statement, the Israeli prime minister’s office said Israel “welcomes the quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions.”
“While Israel has some concerns, it will raise them at the appropriate time,” the statement added. “Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay.”
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has said repeatedly that the Palestinians would not return to negotiations until Israel halts all settlement construction and accepts 1967 border lines as a basis for the return to talks.
“If Israel accepts the quartet offer it means that they stop all settlement activity including natural growth and agree to an agreement based on 1967 borders, because the quartet explained that both sides are obliged to follow the conditions of the roadmap,” top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sunday. “We want to hear from them. If they accept these conditions, these are good news. Without accepting them, that is bad news, that is cheating. This government is playing a game of deceit.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement Sunday, “we welcome the Israeli government’s announcement today expressing readiness to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.” She added Palestinian leaders backed “the Quartet approach” on Thursday.
“The U.S. once again calls on both parties to resume negotiations without preconditions, on the timetable proposed by the Quartet, as the best means to advance their interests, resolve their differences and fulfill (U.S. President Barack Obama’s) two-state vision,” Nuland said.
The Middle East Quartet – made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia – has called on Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks within a month and set the end of 2012 as the deadline for their completion.
In its September 23 statement calling for talks to resume, the quartet said it “reiterated its urgent appeal to the parties to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without delay or preconditions.”
It also “affirmed its determination to actively and vigorously seek a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict” on the basis of numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, previous agreements between the two sides and “the roadmap,” a reference to the proposed plan for Middle East peace laid out by the quartet in 2003.
The roadmap calls on each side to take a series of steps, including Palestinians undertaking “an unconditional cessation of violence” and Israel freezing “all settlement activity.”
Israel on Sunday defended its decision to build 1,100 new homes in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, which Israel seized following the war in 1967.
In a guided tour for foreign journalists, Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon countered Palestinian discontent of the plans.
“This is not easily understood by us why every little building or every little neighborhood extension which is within the natural growth of a vibrant city has to become an international issue,” Ayalon said.
Last Tuesday, the Israeli Interior ministry announced that a district housing and planning committee approved the construction of the new housing, subject to public objections.
Palestinian officials were quick to react, saying it proved that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not serious about making peace.
“He said at the United Nations he was giving his hand in peace but actually he is digging in the land to build more settlements,” said Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh, in a reference to Netanyahu. Shtayyeh called Israel’s move a “slap in the face” of the quartet and the international community.
Palestinians see Jerusalem as their future capital and refer to Israeli neighborhoods seized by Israel in 1967 as settlements, but Israel says they will remain in Israeli control under any future agreement.
The guided tour Sunday came after Israeli media reported criticism expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding the new building plans.
“We have the highest appreciation and admiration to Chancellor Merkel,” Ayalon said. “Germany and Chancellor Merkel are among the best friends and allies of Israel and the Jewish people. But it is important for everyone to come here and see for themselves.”
CNN’s Michael Schwartz contributed to this report.