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Israel ends freeze on West Bank settlement construction

Israel’s partial moratorium on West Bank construction expired late Sunday without a compromise aimed at keeping Palestinians from quitting recently relaunched Mideast peace talks.

But intense negotiations under American mediation continued Sunday night and Palestinians gave no sign that a walkout was imminent.

Shortly after the 10-month moratorium expired at midnight, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying he was prepared to continue efforts to resolve the settlement standoff in the coming days and calling on Palestinians to “continue the sincere, good talks we have just begun, with the purpose of achieving an historic peace agreement between our two peoples.”

The expiration of the moratorium cleared the way for about 2,000 new housing units to break ground in the days and weeks ahead on land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War.

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Jewish settler groups, which have been prevented from building new homes since November 2009, vowed to move quickly on construction in case Netanyahu agrees to new restrictions. He has indicated in recent days that he might cap the number of new units as a concession to Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who arrived Sunday in Paris to meet with French officials, repeated his call for Israel to extend a full moratorium and his negotiating teams has rejected Israel’s compromise offers so far.

Abbas said Palestinians would not decide their next move until after an Oct. 4 Arab League meeting in Cairo, which could give both sides one more week to resolve the matter.

The U.S., which opposes settlement construction and has called on Israel to extend the moratorium, expressed hope that peace talks would not collapse.

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Calling the latest round of talks an “unparalleled opportunity,” senior White House advisor David Axelrod said on ABC’s “This Week”: “They’re having serious discussions. They ought to keep on having those discussions, and we are very eager to see that happen.”

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in a statement Sunday evening: “Our policy on settlement construction has not changed. We remain in close touch with both parties and will be meeting with them again in the coming days.”

George J. Mitchell, the Obama administration’s Mideast peace envoy, and Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, conferred with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in the afternoon. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Sunday with Netanyahu.

The fight over West Bank settlements has long been a key sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though it has never brought the peace process to the brink of a standstill.

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Israel has pledged previously to stop expanding settlements, but since the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the settler population in the West Bank has tripled to about 300,000. Most of the international community deems the settlements illegal.

Palestinians say it was a mistake not to demand a settlement freeze earlier, noting that as negotiations dragged on for years, settlements ate up land and resources they want for a future state. Negotiating for statehood while settlements expand is “a serious contradiction in terms,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa told reporters over the weekend.

Israelis, on the other hand, accuse Palestinians of wasting the last 10 months of Israel’s self-imposed moratorium by refusing face-to-face negotiations until this month. Now, Netanyahu is insisting that the settlement question be dealt with during negotiations, not as a precondition.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu attempted to defuse growing tensions by calling on settler groups to “show restraint and responsibility” as the moratorium expired. But settler activist organizations and conservative lawmakers held a series of rallies in West Bank locations, celebrating the impending end of the moratorium.

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In the settlement of Kiryat Netafim, dozens watched a symbolic groundbreaking for a new kindergarten.

“The 10-month discrimination against the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria is finished,” said Likud Party lawmaker Danny Danon, using an Israeli term for the West Bank. He added that the moratorium had relegated settlers to “second-class citizens.”

Later in the nearby Revava settlement, hundreds gathered in a carnival-like setting with balloons and ice cream.

But Benny Katzover, head of the Samaria Settlers Committee, warned the crowd to be vigilant to prevent new restrictions from being imposed.

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“I am afraid we must prepare for a struggle,” he said. “There is talk of a compromise.”

The fact that the settlement spat blew up into a crisis that is threatening to torpedo peace talks raised doubts about whether Netanyahu and Abbas are truly ready to reach an agreement.

Palestinians say that if Netanyahu can’t stand up to his right-wing coalition to impose a temporary construction freeze, how will he be able to push through an evacuation of settlements that will probably be part of a final peace deal?

Israelis counter that if Palestinians are willing to walk away from the table over an issue that they’ve never deemed nonnegotiable before and could be quickly resolved during talks, perhaps they were never really serious to begin with.

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President Obama is also faulted by some for launching peace talks without first ensuring there was a solution to the settlement dispute.

“The failure of those three men to reach an agreed formula that will allow for serious negotiations to be held casts in doubt the sincerity of their intentions,” wrote Israeli newspaper columnist Nahum Barnea on Sunday in Yediot Aharonot.

A breakdown in talks poses political risks for Netanyahu and Abbas.

Netanyahu should enjoy a boost from his right-wing supporters for allowing the freeze to end, but he is also facing criticism from the left about his commitment to the peace process.

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The left-leaning Labor Party is already hinting that it might quit his coalition if talks break down and the opposition party Kadima, which supports negotiations with Palestinians, would probably use the issue against the prime minister.

Abbas faces pressure either way. If he remains in talks, rival Palestinian factions have vowed to fight him. On Sunday, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine announced it would boycott Palestine Liberation Organization executive meetings in protest over Abbas’ participation in the talks, which the group dismissed as being under U.S. and Israeli control.

Hamas, the militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip, also opposes talks and has resumed attacks in the West Bank, including a drive-by shooting a few weeks ago that killed four Israeli settlers.

On Sunday, an Israeli motorist near the city of Hebron was injured in a shooting, the army said. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

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If Abbas quits talks, he could alienate the U.S. and international community, which provide much of the Palestinian Authority’s funding. At the same time, his popularity among Palestinians and the Arab world might increase if he is seen as standing up to U.S. and Israeli pressure.

“He might lose Obama but get cheers from everyone else,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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