LONDON (Reuters) - Britain condemned Israeli settlements on Monday as "deliberate vandalism" of efforts to establish a Palestinian state, and warned that time was running out for the peace process in the Middle East.
The comments on Jewish settlements by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and on the peace process by Prime Minister David Cameron, bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as negotiators attempt to revive moribund peace talks.
Clegg's comments were some of Britain's strongest yet on the Middle East's most intractable conflict.
"Once you place physical facts on the ground which make it impossible to deliver what everyone has for years agreed is the ultimate destination, then you do immense damage," Clegg said during a visit to London by Abbas, referring to settlements impeding efforts to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"It's an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years and that is why we have expressed our concerns as a government in increasingly forceful terms," he told reporters.
He prefaced his comments by saying there was no stronger supporter of Israel than himself.
Abbas is on a tour of Europe while negotiators from both sides undertake initial discussions on resuming full talks.
The exploratory discussions began on January 3 and followed a long break in negotiations after Abbas suspended talks 15 months ago over Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians want to found a state.
All parties to the talks have accepted the ultimate goal of a "two-state solution", which would see a Palestinian state established alongside Israel. The sides remain divided over its borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and other issues.
Israel says such issues can be resolved only at talks with no preconditions and accuses Abbas of squandering a previous, partial moratorium that it placed on settlement expansion.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers in Jerusalem that Palestinians were not serious about the peace talks.
"I am willing to get into the car right now and travel to (the West Bank city of Ramallah), but the truth must be told, it is Abu Mazen (Abbas) who is the one who is not willing to meet."
EXACTLY WHAT ABBAS WANTS TO HEAR
Palestinians say settlement-building moves the goalposts while talks are under way and gives Israel incentive to stall.
"We think that time, in some ways, is running out for the two-state solution unless we can push forward now, because otherwise the facts on the ground will make it more and more difficult, which is why the settlement issue remains so important," Cameron said.
In February last year, Britain and almost all other members of the U.N. Security Council backed a resolution condemning settlement building as illegal and a major obstacle to peace.
The resolution was vetoed by the United States, which says it wants Israel to stop settlement construction but believes international condemnation is unhelpful.
Israel says it would keep certain settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
Abbas, who is also due to visit Berlin and Moscow, welcomed the comments by Britain's deputy prime minister.
"This is exactly what we had wanted to hear officially from the government of the United Kingdom," he said.
"Of course, time is of the essence; there must be speed .... Settlements have to stop in order for us to be able to continue our negotiations; to come to some sort of solution."
Clegg said the Arab Spring had ushered in a period of change that could make negotiations more fruitful: "If there was any time for real progress, then it is now."
Abbas said he had received no new proposals from Netanyahu, but that Palestinian negotiators were still scheduled to meet their Israeli counterparts two or three more times.
The "Quartet" of international peace mediators - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - wants the two sides to state their positions on the borders and security arrangements of a future two-state solution by January 26.