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Russian president calls for Israeli freeze

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a political boost to the Palestinians on Tuesday, backing their claim to east Jerusalem as a capital and their demand that Israel must freeze all settlement construction before peace talks can resume.
Dmitry Medvedev, Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, third left, review an honor guard prior to their meeting in the West Bank town of Jericho, on Tuesday. Medvedev arrived in the West Bank for a visit seen by the Palestinians as an opportunity to highlight their progress toward building an independent state.Bernat Armangue / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a political boost to the Palestinians on Tuesday, backing their claim to east Jerusalem as a capital and their demand that Israel must freeze all settlement construction before peace talks can resume.

Medvedev delivered the supportive message during his first visit as president to the Palestinian areas, at a time of corrosive deadlock in U.S.-led Mideast peace efforts. While practically on Israel's doorstep, he did not visit Israel because of a strike by Israeli diplomats.

The Palestinians, who say they are ready for independence, hailed the visit as a chance to showcase their progress toward building their state.

The ancient town of Jericho was decked out in Russian and Palestinian flags, and black-clad Palestinian troops with assault rifles lined the streets. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Medvedev were received by an honor guard in a red carpet ceremony.

Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace makers, along with the U.S., European Union and United Nations. The Quartet is to meet in Germany next month to find a way out of the current quagmire.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations briefly resumed in September, but broke down after a slowdown on settlement construction expired. Abbas says he won't negotiate unless Israel halts all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured lands sought by the Palestinians for their state.

Israel has rejected calls to renew the freeze, and the Obama administration has not presented a plan for bringing the sides together again.

In this vacuum, Medvedev affirmed the Palestinians' right to a state, with east Jerusalem as a capital, though he did not say what he believed the borders of the state should be.

In recent weeks, several South American countries have taken such a step, recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

The Russian position was not new, but put it at odds with Israel.

Netanyahu has said Israel will not withdraw to the 1967 borders and that he will not relinquish east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed to its capital after the 1967 war. The annexation of the area, home to sensitive religious sites, has not been recognized by the international community.

Medvedev said Tuesday that the Palestinians have the right to a viable state with east Jerusalem as a capital.

The Russian leader also sided with the Palestinian demand that all settlement construction must stop.

Since 1967, Israel has moved nearly half a million Israelis into settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and Palestinians argue that partition becomes increasingly difficult as these enclaves expand.

"We discussed the conditions for resuming talks with Israel, which include continued self-control and strictly abiding by commitments, and before anything else, freezing all Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem," Medvedev said.

Russia has been floating the idea of hosting a Mideast conference, but Medvedev suggested Tuesday that some progress in talks would have to made first. "The most important issue is the result, not the place and not the timing," he said.

Abbas said halting settlement construction and resuming negotiations is also an Israeli interest. "There are two options, either peace or terror and violence," he added. "We shall not choose terror and violence."

Medvedev spent several hours in Jericho. The town is one of several semiautonomous Palestinian enclaves within the West Bank, where Israel maintains overall control. Israeli security forces were not visible along the access roads to Jericho on Tuesday.

The two presidents signed several cooperation agreements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Medvedev visit is a way of telling the world that the Palestinians are ready for statehood. "Look at us. We are ready for independence. That's the message," Erekat said.

Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has launched a plan to prepare the Palestinians for independence — building up the police force, the legal system and other institutions. He hopes to complete the mission by August.

The Russian president did not visit Israel because of a strike by Israeli diplomats seeking higher wages. The strike prevented the sides from making proper preparations.

Medvedev hinted at the unusual circumstances, saying that "this visit is important for two reasons ... this is the first visit of a Russian Federation president to region and to the Palestinian Territories that does not include a visit to a neighboring state."

Abbas laughed, and the Palestinian audience clapped. Israeli officials declined comment.

Medvedev also visited a Russian-funded museum recently built on Jericho land bought by the Russian government in the 19th century.

The museum is to feature Russian art, an exhibit on cultural ties between Russia and Palestine and artifacts discovered during a salvage dig before construction began. The museum compound also includes a gnarled sycamore that is touted by locals as the very tree climbed by the tax collector to get a glimpse of Jesus.