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Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon speaks at a conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ottawa on May 25, 2009.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Ottawa trod yesterday into the controversy over whether Israel should allow its West Bank settlements to grow, saying that expansion is illegal and would hurt Middle East peace efforts.

On the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a call from U.S. President Barack Obama for a total freeze on settlement building, telling his cabinet that a total stop is not justified.

Yesterday, standing alongside Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as he began a two-day visit to Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told reporters Canada opposes settlements in new areas - and then later said "expansion" would hurt peace efforts.

"We believe that the expansion of settlements [is]illegal, on the one hand - because they are not conducive to helping along the peace process," he told CTV News.

Mr. Abbas, in Canada on his way to Washington to meet Mr. Obama, noted that the a freeze on settlements is a key feature of the so-called road map to peace proposed by the quartet of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, but said he would not discuss it through the news media.

But he said it will be a central part of his talks with Mr. Obama.

"This is one of the main issues I take with me to Washington and this is one of the main issues I discussed with Mr. Cannon," he told reporters.

In Ramallah, however, his adviser on Israeli settlements, Salah al-Ta'mari, said in a statement that Mr. Netanyahu's rejection of a freeze "is a confirmation that he and his government are not interested in peace."

The Conservatives have moved Canada to staunchly pro-Israel positions under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and have rarely criticized Israeli actions.

Israel's settlements on the West Bank are widely seen as one of the key obstacles to peace efforts in the Middle East, but just how far Mr. Netanyahu intends to allow them to expand remains unclear.

Mr. Obama called for a freeze even on so-called "natural growth." Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said yesterday that there won't be new settlements, but new building in existing ones.

"There will be no new settlements and no new outposts, but if in one or another settlement, 14 more children are born, we will open a new child-care facility for them," he said in an interview with Israel's Army Radio.

The Palestinian President's visit to North America is aimed at building international support for his administration and the re-kindling of a peace process.

Mr. Abbas is increasingly besieged at home, but many Western countries, including Canada, view him as the best hope available for even modest peace efforts.

Mr. Harper has spoken with Mr. Netanyahu last week and Jordan's King Abdullah yesterday to try to build momentum for a resumption of peace talks, the Prime Minister's aides said.

Mr. Abbas, who is to open a new Palestinian office in Ottawa, is being attacked at home, not only by Hamas supporters who say he is too close to Israel, but elements of his own Fatah movement who have criticized his appointment last week of a new government headed by Salem Fayyad - who had resigned as prime minister in March in a step aimed at reconciliation talks with Hamas.

Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, a pro-Palestinian group active on many Canadian university campuses, issued a statement attacking Mr. Harper for his planned meeting with Mr. Abbas today.

They say Mr. Abbas is illegitimate because in January he extended his term as president for a year, and appointed a government that is not backed by the elected representatives of the Palestinian territories.

With a report from Bloomberg

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