Settlement-building ban ends in West Bank

By Joel Greenberg
Monday, September 27, 2010

JERUSALEM - A 10-month moratorium on new housing construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank expired at midnight Sunday, adding strain to already fragile Middle East peace talks. But with U.S. diplomats working intensively to keep the peace process going, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not immediately follow through on an earlier threat to quit the negotiations.

In the West Bank, settlers poured concrete for a new day-care center in a symbolic resumption of building and vowed to resume work in settlements throughout the territory, which Palestinians want for a future state. The Palestinian leadership had said it would withdraw from recently renewed negotiations if the building freeze was not extended, but appeared Sunday to be allowing more time for diplomacy.

Heading a coalition dominated by right-of-center parties opposed to a halt in settlement-building, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has rebuffed pressure by the Obama administration to extend the building freeze, while suggesting that some limits would be placed on future construction. On Sunday he called on the settlers to show "restraint and responsibility" after the freeze expired, in an apparent attempt to blunt the diplomatic impact of the resumption of building.

The extent of renewed construction remained unclear, and settler leaders said much depended on permits that would need the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of the center-left Labor party. Settler leaders said there would not be an immediate burst of large-scale construction, but a gradual return to previous building patterns.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said in an interview that "when construction resumes, it will be reserved, responsible and limited.''

The dispute over the building freeze has become an early test of the peace talks re-launched at a White House ceremony this month. Despite expectations that Sunday's midnight deadline might prematurely end the negotiations, U.S. officials said they were working with both the Israelis and Palestinians to find a formula that would allow talks to continue.

"They are talking. They're trying to work this through, and we're hopeful that they will," David Axelrod, President Obama's senior adviser, said on ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour.''"We are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to get some kind of resolution."

In a statement issued after the moratorium expired, Netanyahu urged Abbas to continue the negotiations, and said Israel was prepared to pursue "continuous contacts in the coming days to find a way" to keep the talks going.

In an interview published Sunday in the prominent Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, Abbas said he would not immediately withdraw from negotiations if the Israeli building freeze was not extended. He said he would instead seek counsel from his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as the Arab League forum that gave him backing to pursue direct talks with Israel.

Abbas has been under pressure from Fatah members to not agree to talks without a halt to Israeli settlement construction.

Barak, who returned Sunday from meetings in New York with U.S. officials, told the BBC in an interview that "the chance of achieving a mutually agreed understanding about a moratorium is 50-50."

"We cannot let this process be derailed by the fact that Israel doesn't have a way to stop this building totally," Barak said.

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