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World News

Obama: Israel, Palestinians to be held accountable

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama warned on Tuesday that Israel and the Palestinians would be held accountable if either side takes actions that undermine U.S.-mediated talks launched this week, the White House said.

Obama issued the pledge in a phone call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in which he also urged both parties to negotiate “seriously and in good faith” and move from indirect talks to direct negotiations as soon as possible.

Getting the two sides to revive negotiations, even in a format Washington has dubbed “proximity” talks, marks Obama’s most tangible Middle East achievement since he took office last year. But expectations remain low for any kind of breakthrough.

Speaking to Abbas after U.S. envoy George Mitchell opened the first round of Middle East peace talks in 18 months, Obama sought to maintain pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to keep the fragile diplomatic effort on track.

“The president confirmed his intention to hold both sides accountable for actions that undermine trust during the talks,” the White House said in a summary of Obama’s conversation with Abbas.

The White House did not elaborate on Obama’s warning. But the United States has long-standing concerns about Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian violence.

Though Abbas had backed off on a demand for a full halt to Israeli settlement building on occupied land before any talks, he has spoken of U.S. assurances that Israel will not do anything “provocative” to derail the negotiations.

Obama’s statement appeared in part aimed at satisfying Abbas’ fears that Israel’s right-leaning government might announce further expansion of Jewish housing in and around Jerusalem.

The settlement issue has strained ties between Washington and close ally Israel.

‘PREVENT ACTS OF INCITEMENT’

The White House said Obama also urged Abbas to “do everything he can to prevent acts of incitement or delegitimization of Israel.” Abbas is weakened politically by the Islamist group Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip while he only governs in the West Bank.

Obama, who has stressed his commitment to Israel’s security, also reiterated his support for establishment of an “independent, viable Palestinian state living in peace and security with Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a coalition government dominated by pro-settler parties, has rejected a total freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territory.

But no new Israeli housing projects in East Jerusalem have been approved since March, raising speculation Netanyahu has imposed a de facto moratorium that could keep talks ticking while avoiding a showdown with his far-right coalition partners.

U.S. plans for indirect talks were stymied in March, when Israel angered Washington and the Palestinians by announcing during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden a project to build 1,600 new homes in the Ramat Shlomo settlement.

Mitchell, who returns to the Middle East next week for further shuttle diplomacy, has made no public comments since the Palestine Liberation Organisation approved four months of indirect talks on Saturday.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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