Saudi says Israel settlement move against Annapolis

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Tuesday condemned Israel for restarting settlement activity after a promise to stop building on occupied land helped persuade Riyadh to attend U.S.-brokered peace talks in Annapolis last month.

Plans for new Israeli settlements this month have drawn rare criticism from the United States, as well as the European Union, saying it could undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts launched at a conference in the U.S. city of Annapolis.

“The kingdom strongly condemns Israel’s decision to expand settlement building in East Jerusalem, which contradicts the bases and principles of the Annapolis peace conference,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters.

“We stressed the importance of standing up against settlement activity which empties the peace process of any meaning,” he said, referring to a meeting with peace envoy Tony Blair in Riyadh this week.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed before the Annapolis meeting last month to uphold a pledge not to build new settlements, part of a move to persuade Arab countries including Saudi Arabia to take part in the U.S. conference.

Saudi Arabia stuck its neck out in attending Annapolis, since the leading Arab power, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has avoided contacts with Israelis in international forums.

Israel plans to build 307 homes and other units in an existing settlement near Jerusalem on land Israel annexed from the West Bank after it occupied the territory in 1967.

Israeli says the settlement at Har Homa, known as Abu Ghneim by Arabs, falls outside commitments in the 2003 road map peace plan because it was annexed to Israel.

The annexation of East Jerusalem and adjacent West Bank land is not recognized internationally. Palestinians see building at the site, just north of Bethlehem, as part of a plan to divide the West Bank in two and isolate Arab East Jerusalem, which President Mahmoud Abbas wants as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Saudi Arabia says “normalization” of ties with Israel will only come with a final peace settlement that includes the return of all occupied Arab land.

The foreign minister called on the Palestinian government led by the U.S.-backed Fatah faction and Islamist opposition group Hamas to mend their differences.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal made a brief visit to Riyadh this week for talks with Saudi leaders.

“The Palestinian question now has absolute support around the world, so it’s a contradiction that at the same time there should be Palestinian infighting,” Prince Saud said.

Fighting between the two groups caused the breakdown of a peace deal brokered by Saudi Arabia earlier this year, resulting in Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip and Fatah rule in the West Bank.

Hamas has been shunned by Israel and the United States for refusing to reject use of violence in its struggle with Israel.

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