No Clear Path On Mideast Talks As Deadline Nears

As Israel’s freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank drew to an end on Sunday, American officials were desperately seeking a formula to keep Middle East peace talks alive. Meanwhile, settlers poured cement and released thousands of balloons to mark the resumption of construction.

Jewish settlers in Kiryat Netafim in the West Bank brought a cement mixer to pour a cornerstone for a kindergarten to broadcast that construction on settlements is resuming.

As Israel’s freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank drew to an end on Sunday, American officials were desperately seeking a formula to keep Middle East peace talks alive. Meanwhile, settlers poured cement and released thousands of balloons to mark the resumption of construction. “From this stage, I turn to Hussein Obama and tell him, the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel,” Gershon Mesika, head of the Samaria regional council of settlers, said at the West Bank ceremony, using President Obama’s Arabic middle name to emphasize the alienation he and other Jewish settlers felt toward him.

Mr. Obama and other world leaders have asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to extend the 10-month building moratorium. The Palestinians have repeatedly said that they could not negotiate if settlement construction resumed since the state they hope to build is on the same land.

But there seemed little likelihood of a clear Israeli extension, and much of the diplomacy in the past couple of days was aimed at Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to persuade him to find a way to remain in the direct talks.

Despite Netanyahu's plea for restraint, thousands of settlers celebrated the end of the building freeze in the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas told the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat in an interview published on Sunday that if the building moratorium were not extended, his next step would be to consult with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Arab League leaders. This seemed short of actually ending the talks with Mr. Netanyahu, but it remained unclear how Arab leaders would react.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the Palestinians were still awaiting the results of American diplomatic efforts. Speaking from Paris, where he and Mr. Abbas had arrived earlier, Mr. Abu Rudeineh said that Mr. Abbas had requested a meeting of the Arab League follow-up committee for next week to come to a united Arab position if settlement construction resumed.

American officials have said in recent weeks that the Arab world is eager for the talks to continue. But Arab officials have said numerous times that settlement building and peace-making cannot go together.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the factions in the Palestine Liberation Organization, announced the suspension of its participation in the group in protest over Mr. Abbas’s participation in the talks.
Israeli settler shouts
A top Obama aide, David Axelrod, said on the ABC television program “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” that he was hopeful a deal would be worked out to keep the talks alive.

“They are talking,” he said. “They are trying to work this through and we’re hopeful that they will.”

Some around Mr. Netanyahu have suggested building only in settlement blocs expected to stay in Israeli hands in an eventual two-state solution. But the Palestinians have said the borders needed to be agreed upon first. Then – but not before — building could resume within settlements granted to stay within Israel in exchange for land elsewhere for the Palestinian state.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, told the BBC in New York that he saw the chances of a deal over the settlement issue as “fifty-fifty.”
Israeli settler argues with Israeli activists
Mr. Netanyahu issued an official request on Sunday to the settlers and to all political factions in Israel to “show restraint and responsibility” regarding the end of the settlement freeze, meaning to avoid ostentation and provocation.

But celebrations held first at the settlement of Kiryat Netafim, where a cornerstone was laid for a new kindergarten, and then at the nearby settlement of Revava seemed anything but restrained. Several thousand supporters were bused in, balloons released and speeches made about Jewish rights and the racism of a policy that bars only Jews from building homes there.

“For 10 months you have been treated like second-class citizens,” Danny Danon, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said at the settlement ceremony to those living in the area. “Today we return to build in all the land of Israel.”

Details of any deal being worked out between Israel and the Palestinians remained closely held on Sunday. If Mr. Netanyahu kept to his position that the building freeze was a one-time gesture that the Palestinians had failed to take advantage of, it seemed likely that gestures would be made to the Palestinians, including perhaps the release of some prisoners from Israeli jails.

In Gaza, the Hamas rulers urged Mr. Abbas, the leader of the Fatah party, to end the direct talks and concentrate on Palestinian unity.
Israeli settler gestures as he argues
“Resuming direct negotiations is a crime against the Palestinian people,” a Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, said. “It will come at the expense of national unity.”

Also on Sunday, a small boat organized by leftist Jews, including several Israelis, left Cyprus in an attempt to reach Gaza and express opposition to Israel’s policy there. The boat’s organizers said they would not resist if the Israeli navy tried to stop it before reaching Gaza. Its goal was to tell the Palestinians and the world that not all Jews or Israelis support the blockade of Gaza.

Source : nytimes