JERUSALEM — Israeli settlers have hauled construction equipment into a Jewish settlement deep inside the West Bank, officials said Saturday, preparing to break ground on a new housing project even as the United States raced to prevent peace talks from collapsing with the end of an Israeli moratorium on settlement building.
The end of the Israeli construction restrictions late today presents the first major crisis in the new round of Mideast peace talks, launched earlier this month at the White House by President Barack Obama.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who imposed the settlement slowdown 10 months ago, says he will not extend the restrictions, despite public calls from Obama to do so. But the Palestinians, who oppose all Israeli construction on territories they claim for a future state, say they will quit the talks if building resumes.
"Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly Saturday.
He said the Palestinians and the wider Middle East are continuously pushed into "the corner of violence and conflict" as a result of Israel's "mentality of expansion and domination."
Abbas left the United States late Saturday for meetings in France.
"The American efforts are continuing and will continue in the coming hours," Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh told the Associated Press from the plane before takeoff. "These are serious and important efforts, but they still haven't reached an Israeli commitment to stop settlement activities."
Abbas has called for a meeting of key Arab foreign ministers to convene in Egypt in the next few days to discuss developments, Abu Rdeneh said.
With the clock ticking, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to broker a last-minute compromise before tonight's deadline in hopes of averting a breakdown in talks.
Israel's military chief last week warned that violence could erupt if peace talks break down — a concern that was underscored by rioting in east Jerusalem after the shooting death of a Palestinian man Wednesday. Violence broke out again Saturday, as Israeli riot troops clashed with Palestinian protesters demonstrating against a settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron.