JERUSALEM — Israel's decision this weekend to end its freeze on West Bank Jewish settlement construction sent diplomats on three continents into desperate activity on Monday as they tried to keep Middle East peace talks alive. And although the discussions covered many topics, in the end they came down to one stubborn goal: how to end settlement construction.
While Israeli and Palestinian negotiators huddled in Washington, Tony Blair, the international envoy to the process and former British prime minister, shuttled around Jerusalem. And in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and extended an invitation to him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting there next month. Both accepted.
Sarkozy called on Monday for an end to Jewish settlement building, as did the United Nations secretary-general and the American and British governments.
The Palestinian leadership has said from the start of the direct talks four weeks ago that if the building moratorium were not extended there was no point in continuing the negotiations. But Abbas announced on Monday that instead of walking out, he would carry out further consultations at home this week and with Arab leaders on Monday in Cairo.
The consultation plans granted at least another week to finding a formula for the settlement dilemma, officials said. The peace talks were in danger of collapse without a formula, they added.
"We pointed to the Arab League meeting next Monday as a way of giving more time for an Israeli answer," Nabil Shaath, one of the Palestinian negotiators, said by telephone from Paris. "We are waiting for Netanyahu. If he freezes settlements, this will bring us back to the negotiations."
Other officials said that Netanyahu has not specifically ruled out stopping settlement construction as part of a package. He would not extend the 10-month building moratorium he declared in November, his aides said, because he felt it vital for both domestic and foreign concerns to live up to his word that it was a one-time gesture.
But now discussions are under way that are focusing again on curbing Jewish settlements on land that would go to the Palestinians for their future state. However, settlements are being negotiated as part of a larger set of issues — they involve borders, territory and, ultimately, security — so their future is not being discussed in isolation.
The goal this week is to find a way forward on all those substantial issues that embraces a way out of the settlement dilemma, officials said.
George Mitchell, the Obama administration's special envoy to the Middle East, is expected back in the region in the next couple of days to take part in the talks.
The New York Times reported Monday that a top diplomat said the key was to put negotiations back on their feet and remove settlements as an issue by itself. The diplomat spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity because all sides agreed not to talk publicly about the details of the talks.
According to the newspaper, the diplomat also said that Netanyahu has to be able to sell a deal ultimately to his right-leaning Cabinet and to the Israeli public, and, therefore, his credibility was a matter of concern to the negotiators as well as to him.
On Sunday night, as the 10-month construction moratorium ended, Netanyahu called on Abbas to keep the negotiations going but made no mention of the settlement moratorium or the start of construction. Earlier in the day, he called on leaders of the settlers to "show restraint and responsibility," meaning to avoid ostentation and incitement.
Generally, the reaction in West Bank Jewish settlements to the end of the moratorium was relatively muted on Monday. That may be largely because the Sukkot holiday this week has kept construction crews from working all over the country. Small, mostly symbolic, projects in the settlements of Ariel and Kiryat Arba, among others, were begun on Monday to acknowledge renewed settlement building.
American officials made clear over the weekend that they were deeply disappointed in Netanyahu's decision not to extend the freeze. Palestinian officials said they found it hard to understand how the Obama administration could express its opposition to the building but not get it stopped.
"We cannot accept the American position that says it is against settlements but doesn't lead to an end to them," Shaath, the negotiator, said. "We need a practical position from the United States against settlements. I am surprised that America is unable to stop them."
Shaath added that the central committee of Abbas' Fatah party and the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization were scheduled to meet this week in preparation for the Arab League ministerial meeting on Monday.
Arab leaders, especially of Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have been eager for the Israeli-Palestinian talks to continue. But all have expressed anger at settlement growth, and it remained unclear what they would advise Abbas if settlement building was not curbed.