Is­raeli set­tlers vow to build new homes as Ne­tanyahu urges Pales­tini­ans to con­tinue peace talks.

Los Angeles Times - - Late Extra - Ed­mund San­ders re­port­ing from jerusalem

Is­rael’s par­tial mora­to­rium on West Bank con­struc­tion ex­pired late Sun­day with­out a com­pro­mise aimed at keep­ing Pales­tini­ans from quit­ting re­cently re­launched Mideast peace talks.

But in­tense ne­go­ti­a­tions un­der Amer­i­can me­di­a­tion con­tin­ued Sun­day night and Pales­tini­ans gave no sign that a walk­out was im­mi­nent.

Shortly af­ter the 10month mora­to­rium ex­pired at mid­night, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu is­sued a state­ment say­ing he was pre­pared to con­tinue ef­forts to re­solve the set­tle­ment stand­off in the com­ing days and call­ing on Pales­tini­ans to “con­tinue the sin­cere, good talks we have just be­gun, with the pur­pose of achiev­ing an his­toric peace agree­ment be­tween our two peo­ples.”

The ex­pi­ra­tion of the mora­to­rium cleared the way for about 2,000 new hous­ing units to break ground in the days and weeks ahead on land oc­cu­pied by Is­rael since the 1967 Mid­dle East War.

Jewish set­tler groups, which have been pre­vented from build­ing new homes since Novem­ber 2009, vowed to move quickly on con­struc­tion in case Ne­tanyahu agrees to new re­stric­tions.

He has in­di­cated in re­cent days that he might cap the num­ber of new units as a con­ces­sion to Pales­tini­ans.

Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas, who ar­rived Sun­day in Paris to meet with French of­fi­cials, re­peated his call for Is­rael to ex­tend a full mora­to­rium and his ne­go­ti­at­ing team has re­jected Is­rael’s com­pro­mise of­fers so far.

Ab­bas said Pales­tini­ans would not de­cide their next move un­til af­ter an Oct. 4 Arab League meet­ing in Cairo, which could give both sides one more week to re­solve the mat­ter.

The U.S., which op­poses set­tle­ment con­struc­tion and has called on Is­rael to ex­tend the mora­to­rium, expressed hope that peace talks would not col­lapse.

Call­ing the lat­est round of talks an “un­par­al­leled op­por­tu­nity,” se­nior White House ad­vi­sor David Ax­el­rod said on ABC’s “This Week”: “They’re hav­ing se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions. They ought to keep on hav­ing those dis­cus­sions, and we are very ea­ger to see that hap­pen.”

State Depart­ment spokesman Philip J. Crow­ley said in a state­ment Sun­day evening: “Our pol­icy on set­tle­ment con­struc­tion has not changed. We re­main in close touch with both par­ties and will be meet­ing with them again in the com­ing days.”

Ge­orge J. Mitchell, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Mideast peace en­voy, and Jef­frey Felt­man, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State for Near East­ern af­fairs, con­ferred with Pales­tinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in the af­ter­noon. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton spoke Sun­day with Ne­tanyahu.

The fight over West Bank set­tle­ments has long been a key stick­ing point in the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict, though it has never brought the peace process to the brink of a stand­still.

Is­rael has pledged pre­vi­ously to stop ex­pand­ing set­tle­ments, but since the 1993 Oslo peace ac­cords, the set­tler pop­u­la­tion in the West Bank has tripled to about 300,000. Most of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity deems the set­tle­ments il­le­gal.

Pales­tini­ans say it was a mis­take not to de­mand a set­tle­ment freeze ear­lier, not­ing that as ne­go­ti­a­tions dragged on for years, set­tle­ments ate up land and re­sources they want for a fu­ture state. Ne­go­ti­at­ing for state­hood while set­tle­ments ex­pand is “a se­ri­ous con­tra­dic­tion in terms,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa told re­porters over the week­end.

Is­raelis, on the other hand, ac­cuse Pales­tini­ans of wast­ing the last 10 months of Is­rael’s self-im­posed mora­to­rium by re­fus­ing face-to­face ne­go­ti­a­tions un­til this month. Now, Ne­tanyahu is in­sist­ing that the set­tle­ment ques­tion be dealt with dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, not as a pre­con­di­tion.

Ear­lier Sun­day, Ne­tanyahu at­tempted to defuse grow­ing ten­sions by call­ing on set­tler groups to “show re­straint and re­spon­si­bil­ity” as the mora­to­rium ex­pired. But set­tler ac­tivist or­ga­ni­za­tions and con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers held a se­ries of ral­lies in West Bank lo­ca­tions, cel­e­brat­ing the im­pend­ing end of the mora­to­rium.

In the set­tle­ment of Kiryat Netafim, dozens watched a sym­bolic ground­break­ing for a new kinder­garten.

“The 10-month dis­crim­i­na­tion against the Jewish peo­ple in Judea and Sa­maria is fin­ished,” said Likud Party law­maker Danny Danon, us­ing an Is­raeli term for the West Bank. He added that the mora­to­rium had rel­e­gated set­tlers to “sec­ond-class cit­i­zens.”

Later in the nearby Re­vava set­tle­ment, hun­dreds gath­ered in a car­ni­val-like set­ting with bal­loons and ice cream.

But Benny Kat­zover, head of the Sa­maria Set­tlers Com­mit­tee, warned the crowd to be vig­i­lant to pre­vent new re­stric­tions from be­ing im­posed.

“I am afraid we must pre­pare for a strug­gle,” he said. “There is talk of a com­pro­mise.”

The fact that the set­tle­ment spat blew up into a cri­sis that is threat­en­ing to tor­pedo peace talks raised doubts about whether Ne­tanyahu and Ab­bas are truly ready to reach an agree­ment.

Pales­tini­ans say that if Ne­tanyahu can’t stand up to his right-wing coali­tion to im­pose a tem­po­rary con­struc­tion freeze, how will he be able to push through an evac­u­a­tion of set­tle­ments that will prob­a­bly be part of a fi­nal peace deal?

Is­raelis counter that if Pales­tini­ans are will­ing to walk away from the ta­ble over an is­sue that they’ve never deemed non­nego­tiable be­fore and could be quickly re­solved dur­ing talks, per­haps they were never re­ally se­ri­ous to be­gin with.

Pres­i­dent Obama is also faulted by some for launch­ing peace talks with­out first en­sur­ing there was a so­lu­tion to the set­tle­ment dis­pute.

“The fail­ure of those three men to reach an agreed for­mula that will al­low for se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions to be held casts in doubt the sin­cer­ity of their in­ten­tions,” wrote Is­raeli news­pa­per colum­nist Nahum Barnea on Sun­day in Ye­diot Aharonot.

A break­down in talks poses po­lit­i­cal risks for Ne­tanyahu and Ab­bas.

Ne­tanyahu should en­joy a boost from his right-wing sup­port­ers for al­low­ing the freeze to end, but he is also fac­ing crit­i­cism from the left about his com­mit­ment to the peace process.

The left-lean­ing La­bor Party is al­ready hint­ing that it might quit his coali­tion if talks break down and the op­po­si­tion party Kadima, which sup­ports ne­go­ti­a­tions with Pales­tini­ans, would prob­a­bly use the is­sue against the prime min­is­ter.

Ab­bas faces pres­sure ei­ther way. If he re­mains in talks, ri­val Pales­tinian fac­tions have vowed to fight him. On Sun­day, the Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine an­nounced it would boy­cott Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion ex­ec­u­tive meet­ings in protest over Ab­bas’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in the talks, which the group dis­missed as be­ing un­der U.S. and Is­raeli con­trol.

Ha­mas, the mil­i­tant move­ment that con­trols the Gaza Strip, also op­poses talks and has re­sumed attacks in the West Bank, in­clud­ing a drive-by shoot­ing a few weeks ago that killed four Is­raeli set­tlers.

On Sun­day, an Is­raeli mo­torist near the city of He­bron was in­jured in a shoot­ing, the army said. No group im­me­di­ately claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity.

If Ab­bas quits talks, he could alien­ate the U.S. and in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, which pro­vide much of the Pales­tinian Author­ity’s fund­ing. At the same time, his pop­u­lar­ity among Pales­tini­ans and the Arab world might in­crease if he is seen as stand­ing up to U.S. and Is­raeli pres­sure.

“He might lose Obama but get cheers from ev­ery­one else,” said David Makovsky, di­rec­tor of the Washington In­sti­tute’s Project on the Mid­dle East Peace Process.

Am­mar Awad

CLASH­ING VIEWS: A pro­tester, left, ar­gues with a set­tler dur­ing a demon­stra­tion in Jerusalem in sup­port of a con­struc­tion mora­to­rium in the West Bank.


Oliver Weiken

Right-wing Is­raelis and for­eign sup­port­ers mark the end of the 10-month set­tle­ment con­struc­tion freeze.

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