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End of building moratorium threatens Mideast peace talks

REVAVA, West Bank — Happy Jewish settlers released balloons and broke ground on a kindergarten as the last hours of a 10-month construction slowdown ticked away Sunday, while U.S. and Israeli leaders tried to figure out how to keep Palestinians from walking out of peace talks over the expiration of the restrictions.

In Revava, a settlement deep in the West Bank, about 2,000 activists released 2,000 balloons in the blue and white of the Israeli flag at sundown. The balloons were meant to symbolize the 2,000 apartments that settlers say are ready to be built immediately.

"Today it's over and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again," settler leader Dani Dayan told the crowd. "We return with new energy and a new determination to populate this land."

It was unclear how the official end of the slowdown will affect construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already signaled future settlement construction will be kept to a minimum, in contrast to relatively unfettered housing activity of past Israeli governments.

Netanyahu imposed the slowdown in November in a bid to draw the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The Palestinians initially rejected the offer as insufficient, but in recent weeks they demanded that the measures remain in place.

The deadlock over settlements has created the first crisis in the negotiations, and U.S. mediators raced to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians. But a deal was far from certain.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials over the weekend in hopes of forging a deal on settlement construction.

Before boarding a plane back to Israel, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the BBC late Sunday that chances of success were "50-50." The chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remained in the United States, leaving a window open for a last-minute agreement.

One of Obama's chief advisers, David Axelrod, told ABC News that efforts were continuing.

"We're very eager to keep these talks going," he said. "We are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to — to get some kind of resolution."

The Palestinians have said they will quit the negotiations if Israel resumes building, though President Mahmoud Abbas said in a published interview Sunday that he would not immediately withdraw. Instead, he said he would consult with Arab partners to weigh his options.

Abbas faces intense internal pressure from his supporters not to relax his conditions.

Also, the rival Islamic Hamas, which controls Gaza, opposes peace talks with Israel in principle.

The Palestinians say Israeli construction in the West Bank cripples plans for a viable Palestinian state. Some 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, scattered among 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem.

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

That means the slowdown could have far more impact if it remained in place.

End of building moratorium threatens Mideast peace talks 09/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 27, 2010 12:31am]

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