JERUSALEM - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will demand Israel commit at a peace summit today to a freeze on all settlement construction, and he has appealed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for support, an aide said.
A small Israeli construction project in a part of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians has emerged as a stumbling block to the summit between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, the first since the two sides agreed last month at a US-sponsored conference that they would resume peace talks.
Israel announced last month that it was building 307 apartments in Har Homa, part of a ring of Jewish neighborhoods around east Jerusalem where about 180,000 Israelis live. Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Rice called Abbas yesterday and the Palestinian leader asked her to press Israel to halt construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Abu Rdeneh said Abbas will ask Olmert for "a clear cessation of settlement activities."
Joint committees of lower-ranking officials will begin discussing other issues central to the peace process, Abu Rdeheh said, "but there is a need to freeze the settlement activities in order to create the appropriate atmosphere to bring progress in the peace process."
President Bush visits the region in two weeks, in an effort to build on momentum from the Annapolis summit.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman confirmed that Rice telephoned Abbas and Olmert yesterday morning about the talks. The spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos, declined to "get into the contents of the conversations any further save to say that she stressed the importance of their making progress."
Years of peace efforts have been stymied by the issues of whether Palestinian refugees can return to their former homes inside Israel, by the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, and by the question of where the final borders of Israel and a Palestinian state will lie.
The Jerusalem construction issue has dominated the two meetings of Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams since the Annapolis summit.
Israel, which annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it along with the West Bank in 1967, does not accept demands to limit its construction there.
"We want to make 2009 a year of peace," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, referring to the year Bush leaves office. "This [construction] kills the credibility of the peace process."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel is committed to trying to reach a peace treaty with the Palestinians in 2008, as decided at Annapolis.
"This is an ambitious goal. It will demand our tenacity, our determination and both sides coming to the table in the spirit of seriousness," he said.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt criticized the Jerusalem construction plans in a meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik with Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, who pressed Egypt to do more to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza.
Israel is concerned that Gaza's Hamas rulers are using tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle ammunition and explosives to brace for an intensified round of fighting against Israel. Egypt angrily rejected the charges.
A US senator visiting Israel said yesterday that Egypt was "complicitous" in the smuggling and must crack down on the "intolerable" flow of the weapons into the Gaza Strip.
"And if they don't, I think it would be appropriate to condition aid to them," Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, a member of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters in Jerusalem.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni infuriated Cairo earlier this week by accusing its forces of doing a "terrible" job in securing the border, saying this stands in the way of Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians because it strengthens Gaza extremists.