By Joel Greenberg
Monday, September 27, 2010; A8
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.
A measure of the pressure on Netanyahu from the settlers and their allies came Sunday in a groundbreaking ceremony and rally organized by a leader of the prime minister's own Likud party.
Before a battery of television cameras, a cement mixer poured concrete for a new day-care center at the Qiryat Netafim settlement, which is deep in the West Bank. Busloads of Likud members arrived at the neighboring settlement of Revava for a final countdown on the moratorium, and a mass release of balloons at sundown to mark the lifting of the building restrictions.
Danny Danon, the Likud lawmaker who organized the events, urged Netanyahu to "stand up strong to the pressures of President Obama. We will all support you. Don't give in."
Gershon Mesika, the head of the regional settlement council, had a message for the U.S. president. "From this stage I say to Hussein Obama: The Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. The Jewish people have the strongest title deed in the world, and that is the Bible," he said, using Obama's middle name.
According to Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the settlements and monitors their expansion, there are about 2,000 housing units ready for immediate construction as soon as the building freeze ends. The partial moratorium had cut building starts by about 50 percent, the group said in a report in August.
Danny Dayan, head of the settlers' umbrella group, said that there would not be an immediate spurt of construction as soon as the moratorium expires, and that much depended on individual building plans of homeowners and contractors.
"This will be a process. It's not like tomorrow there will be a bulldozer on every hill," Dayan said. "We're going back to normal."
Greenburg is a special correspondent. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.