RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Sunday that he will not back down from his threat to pull out of new peace negotiations with Israel if it resumes construction in West Bank settlements.

The talks are set to resume this week with a summit meeting in Washington after months of U.S. mediation efforts.

Israelis themselves are divided over the settlements, including how many should be dismantled, if any, to enable the creation of a Palestinian state. Reflecting that divide, leading Israeli theater actors and playwrights pledged Sunday not to perform in West Bank settlements, an announcement that drew sharp criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Under intense American pressure, Netanyahu declared a 10-month partial freeze in settlement construction to boost prospects for talks, but the negotiations are resuming just three weeks before the freeze expires. Netanyahu has not pledged to renew it, facing stiff opposition from hard-line coalition partners in his government.

The Palestinians never endorsed the freeze, because it did not halt all construction in the West Bank and did not apply to east Jerusalem, the section claimed by the Palestinians for a future capital.

Speaking in a televised address recorded earlier Sunday in Jordan, Abbas said, “the Israeli government holds full responsibility for the failure and the collapse of these negotiations if it continues settlement expansion in all the occupied Palestinian territories,” a clear reference to east Jerusalem.

Abbas is facing internal opposition from Palestinian hard-liners, especially Hamas, for agreeing to return to the negotiating table. The Islamic Hamas, which rules Gaza and has a significant presence in the West Bank, rejects any contact with Israel. Other Palestinians criticize Abbas for not securing Israeli concessions in advance of the talks.

Netanyahu also must deal with opposition.

Hawkish members of his coalition government oppose any concessions to the Palestinians, and one unleashed a tirade against the Palestinians Sunday.

The spiritual leader of one of the hard-line parties in Netanyahu’s coalition caused a stir by saying in his weekly sermon that the Palestinians and Abbas should “perish from the world.” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 89, a founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, also said Palestinians are “evil, bitter enemies of Israel.”

The former chief rabbi of Israel is a respected religious scholar among Jews of Middle Eastern descent, but he is also known for vitriolic comments about Arabs, secular Jews, liberals, women and gays. Shas runs private schools that educate tens of thousands of Israeli children.

The Abbas government responded angrily, demanding in a statement that the Israeli government put a stop to what it described as a “culture of hatred in Israel toward Palestinians.”

The Israeli premier’s office rejected Yosef’s remarks, saying they “do not reflect the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the position of the Israeli government.” The office said in a statement that Netanyahu is going to the talks with a goal of “reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that will put an end to the conflict.”


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