The Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has distanced himself from comments by a senior rabbi who called on God to strike down the country’s enemies with the plague.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, a party in Israel’s coalition government, said the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and others should “disappear from the earth”.
The Israeli prime minister said his government wanted peace with the Palestinians.
The US described the remarks as “inflammatory” and “deeply offensive”.
But Israel says it hasn’t promised to continue a partial freeze on new settlements in the West Bank.
Abbas has warned that the policy could undermine the new round of peace talks.
Israel would shoulder the blame, he said, if the negotiations collapsed.
The Palestinians have threatened to pull out of face-to-face talks if the building work continues.
The last round of talks broke down nearly two years ago. The new negotiations due to begin in Washington later this week are resuming just three weeks before the freeze expires.
The dispute over settlement-building is just one of several contentious issues. Commentators say the prospects for success at the talks are low.
For Barack Obama the stakes are high. The US President is putting his own reputation on the line with the Middle East talks.
He’s taking a big risk in a congressional election year. The question is whether Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to do the same.
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