U.S. tries to resolve Israeli-Palestinian row, pro-settlers ready to resume building in West Bank.
JERUSALEM – A 10-month freeze on new construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank expired on Sunday, imperilling Middle East peace talks less than a month after their launch by U.S. President Barack Obama.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Jewish settlers to act with restraint once the moratorium expired, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians would not immediately end peace talks with Israel if it did not extend the settlement freeze.
“The prime minister calls on the residents in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the political parties to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future exactly as they showed restraint and responsibility throughout the months of the freeze,” an official statement from Netanyahu’s office said. It was issued several hours before a settler-organised cornerstone-laying ceremony in a West Bank settlement to mark the end of a 10-month partial construction freeze which Netanyahu has said he would not extend, despite Palestinian threats to abandon the U.S.-sponsored talks.
In another sign that a way could be found out of a crisis threatening negotiations that began less than a month ago, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said there was more than an even chance the peace process would continue.
Abbas has said repeatedly he would walk out of the talks with Israel unless the partial halt to building remained in place. Palestinians view Israel’s settlements as a formidable obstacle to statehood. Asked in an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat whether he would declare an end to the negotiations if the freeze did not continue, Abbas said: “No, we will go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab follow-up committee.” He was referring to an Arab League forum that gave him the go-ahead to pursue U.S.-brokered direct peace talks with Israel that began in Washington on Sept. 2.
U.S. President Obama has urged Israel to continue the freeze, but Netanyahu, whose coalition is packed with pro-settler parties, has offered only to limit the scope of renewed building.