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Palestinians weighing alternatives to peace talks

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By Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinians will study alternatives to peace talks with Israel in the coming days, a top PLO official said Saturday, after Israel gave the green light to build 238 new houses for Jews on war-won land Palestinians seek for their state.

However, it's unlikely the Palestinians will take any dramatic steps before Nov. 2 midterm elections in the U.S., since Arab leaders have already promised the Obama administration more time — until a few days after the vote — to try to relaunch negotiations. Saturday's statements seemed intended mainly as a new warning that Washington's peace efforts are in trouble.

The negotiations, launched by the U.S. in early September, quickly broke down over Israel's refusal to extend a limited curb on construction in West Bank settlements, deemed illegal by the international community.

The Palestinians want to establish their state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War — and say there is no point negotiating as long as expanding settlements gobble up more of that land.

Nearly half a million Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel's 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank expired Sept. 26. Israel never formally declared building restrictions in east Jerusalem, though an informal freeze was believed to have been in effect for several months. However, Israel announced on Thursday plans to build 238 more homes for Jews in east Jerusalem, sought by the Palestinians as a future capital.

The Palestinians sharply criticized the move. Both the U.S. and Russia said in separate statements that they were disappointed by Israel's announcement and that the new construction plans run counter to efforts to rescue the negotiations.

On Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his Fatah movement at his headquarters in the West Bank.

The Palestinians plan to study their options in coming days, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the PLO.

"These political options include going to the U.N. and to the Security Council," he said.

Palestinian officials have said in the past they might ask the Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, in case negotiations with Israel break down. The U.S. could quickly derail such a move with a veto, and it appears unlikely the Palestinians would proceed down that path without U.S. backing. For now, Washington opposes unilateral steps.

Mohammed Ishtayeh, a senior Fatah official, said the Palestinians will have prepared options by the time they consult with the Arab League in three weeks.

"We and the Arabs will choose which of these options can be implemented," he said. "It's not just a matter of going here or there, without having an outcome on the ground, because some of these options need American consent or facilitation."

Abed Rabbo, meanwhile, rejected Netanyahu's recent proposal that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish national homeland, in exchange for Israel reimposing the curb on settlements. Abed Rabbo noted that the PLO and Israel formally recognized each other in 1993. "There is no need to reopen the issue (of recognition)," he said.

In other developments Saturday, a German mediator involved in the past in trying to broker a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas secretly visited Hamas-ruled Gaza, said Osama Mazeini, a senior official in the Islamic militant group.

Hamas is trying to swap an Israeli soldier it captured in 2006 for hundreds of supporters held by Israel. Negotiations have been deadlocked for months, and the mediator's recent visit suggests efforts are being made to renew the talks.

Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former U.N. envoy and Algerian Foreign Minister, said he and a visiting delegation to Gaza discussed the matter with Hamas leaders.

"They told us that there are some contacts but they did not give us any details on this subject," he said.