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Palestinian Opposition Calls for Cancellation of Peace Talks with Israel

Palestinian politicians and influential businesspeople gathered in the West Bank town of Ramallah to call on President Mahmoud Abbas not to attend U.S.-brokered peace negotiations with Israel planned next week.

The gathering brought together hundreds of academics, businesspeople, and politicians who called on President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the direct talks that are set to resume September 2 in Washington.

The meeting highlighted the discontent that exists among many influential Palestinians who think the negotiations will be fruitless.

Those present included billionaire Munib al-Masri, whose wealth accounts for more than a quarter of the Palestinian economy. There were also heads of various political parties, and at least one member of Mr. Abbas' cabinet.

Qais Abdul Karim, an opposition member of the Palestinian Legislative Council said President Abbas should not go to negotiations that he and others believe will be counterproductive for the Palestinians.

"The consequence is that Israelis will continue their settlement building activities under the cover of the continued negotiations, paralyzing and neutralizing international public opinion and gaining this time in order to force their de-facto situation on the ground," said Karim.

Opponents say the Palestinian leader should have obtained prior guarantees from Israel that it will extend a freeze on construction in Jewish West Bank settlements past a September 26 deadline.

Wednesday's gathering had just started when supporters of President Abbas disrupted the meeting, shouting, waving photos of Mr. Abbas, and tossing chairs.

Attendees left the building. Among them was Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an East Jerusalem think tank. He said the Abbas supporters' actions underscores what he believes is a lack of public support for the negotiations.

"Mr. Abbas is naked; [he] is weak. He is alone, and he has only the voice of force to silence the opposition from his own society," said Abdul Hadi. "Mr. Abbas is politically naked and he cannot represent the Palestinians under these circumstances.

Some of those attending the meeting said it was President Abbas' security forces who disrupted the gathering. A spokesman for the security forces says his agents did not interfere with the meeting. A statement from President Abbas' office says he has called for an immediate investigation.

Israel says it wants talks without preconditions and has yet to announce whether it will extend the construction freeze. The matter has touched off a debate within the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Right-wing members of the coalition, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, say limiting construction is unacceptable. Lieberman - who lives on a West Bank settlement - on Wednesday said Israel should not punish West bank settlers, and should not - in his words - "fold" under U.S. and Palestinian pressure.