Israeli settlement slowdown to end at midnight

September 26, 2010

Israelis, Palestinians and U.S. mediators were racing Sunday to find a compromise that would allow the fragile new Mideast talks to continue after an Israeli settlement slowdown expires at midnight.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the 10-month-old curbs on new settlement construction in the West Bank will not be extended, despite public appeals from President Barack Obama to do so. The Palestinians say that if the slowdown ends, they will quit the talks.

If the sides fail to strike a compromise, the midnight end of the building restrictions could also mark the end of the Mideast peace talks launched at the White House less than a month ago.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, and defense minister, Ehud Barak, were en route from the U.S. to Israel on Sunday morning after taking part in efforts to hammer out a compromise with American and Palestinian representatives.

But the chief negotiators, Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians and Yitzhak Molcho for the Israelis, remained in the U.S., leaving a window open for a last-minute agreement.

Israeli settlers and their supporters have been pushing Netanyahu to keep an explicit promise he made to resume construction in Israel's West Bank settlements. Several thousand settlers were expected Sunday at a rally to count down the hours to the slowdown's expiry at midnight.

Faced with heavy pressure from the Palestinians and the U.S. to back down, Israel's government was keeping mum as the deadline approached. Netanyahu instructed his Cabinet ministers not to speak to the media about the crisis Sunday, Israeli officials said, and even the prime minister's spokesman refused to comment.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that "Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlement."

The Palestinians and the Middle East, he said, are continuously pushed into "the corner of violence and conflict" as a result of Israel's "mentality of expansion and domination."

But wary of being blamed if the talks collapse, Abbas told a group of American Jewish leaders last week that he would not necessarily walk away from the negotiations even if settlement construction resumes. And senior Palestinian officials have said they are willing to show "some flexibility."

Netanyahu, for his part, has said Israel would not necessarily resume construction in full.

The Palestinians oppose all Israeli construction in the West Bank, saying it cripples plans for a viable
Palestinian state.

Israel rejects preconditions to negotiations, saying settlements should be discussed in the talks.

Abbas is threatened internally by his rivals from the Islamist Hamas group, which rules the Gaza Strip and rejects any recognition of Israel. Abbas "should withdraw immediately from the negotiations" and concentrate on unifying Palestinians to fight Israel, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told the AP in Gaza.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, faces heavy pressure within his pro-settler governing coalition to resume construction. Hardline elements could try to bring down the government if Netanyahu extends the settlement slowdown.

In practice, the slowdown has brought about only a slight drop of about 10 percent in ongoing construction in the settlements. But it has significantly cut new housing starts by about 50 percent, according to the dovish Israeli group Peace Now.

Around 2,000 homes can begin construction immediately once the slowdown ends, Israeli Cabinet minister Limor Livnat told Israel Radio on Saturday.
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