JERUSALEM - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will demand that Israel commit at a peace summit today to a freeze on all settlement construction, and he has appealed to U.S. 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 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the first since the two sides agreed last month at a U.S.-sponsored conference that they would resume peace talks.
Israel said 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 that Rice called Abbas yesterday and that the Palestinian leader asked her to press Israel to halt construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Abu Rdeneh said Abbas would 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 Rdeneh 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 will visit the region in two weeks in an effort to build on momentum from the Annapolis summit.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos, confirmed that Rice called Abbas and Olmert about the talks. He declined to "get into the contents of the conversations any further," other than to say that Rice "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, the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, and where the final borders of Israel and a Palestinian state would 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 was committed to trying to reach a peace treaty with the Palestinians in 2008, as decided at Annapolis.
"This is an ambitious goal," he said. "It will demand our tenacity, our determination, and both sides coming to the table in the spirit of seriousness."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak criticized the Jerusalem construction plans at a meeting in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who pressed Egypt to do more to stop weapons being smuggled into the Gaza Strip.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), visiting Israel, said yesterday that Egypt was "complicitous" in the smuggling and must crack down on the "intolerable" flow of the weapons into Gaza.