Palestinian Authority negotiator Nabil Shaath said Palestinians are giving the U.S. time to persuade Israel to resume a building freeze in West Bank settlements that they have said is critical to peace talks.
“We want to give the Americans four to five days, a week, to see if they can get Mr. Netanyahu to seriously reconsider the moratorium,” Shaath said in an interview in Paris hours after the freeze ended. Direct talks that started in Washington on Sept. 2 will be on hold until it is clear what Israel will do, Shaath said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed regret today that Israel didn’t extend the moratorium on construction in areas claimed by the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his government isn’t planning to renew the freeze.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has said in the past that a resumption of construction would prompt him to walk away from negotiations, said he would confer with other Arab leaders before reacting to the end of the suspension.
“We would have liked to see a moratorium that lasts another three or four months, but we won’t have rapid reaction,” Abbas said in Paris after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He said he plans on meet with the Arab League on Oct. 4 to discuss the future of peace talks.
Israeli building crews began work today at settlements including Ariel, Oranit, Tekoa, Neve Daniel and Adam, according to Naftali Bennett, director-general of the Yesha Council, which represents the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank.
“If you can’t give up deepening the occupation, what does it say about your willingness to negotiate?” Shaath said. “We have every indication the U.S. is committed to the peace process. Let’s see what they can do.”
Shaath said the Palestinians are willing to accept a shorter moratorium than the one that just expired and won’t accept a deal that allows more settlement building.
“We want a return to the same moratorium,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t watertight, but we accepted it. If we allow building in some areas, it would be giving up land before negotiations.”
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is flying to the region tonight to discuss with the parties about how to proceed, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters in New York.
Netanyahu said in a statement early today that he is willing to continue uninterrupted contacts over the next few days to find a way to allow peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to move forward.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met today in Tel Aviv with Tony Blair, the Middle East coordinator for the so-called Quartet of powers supporting the peace talks, which includes the U.S., the UN, Russia and the European Union, his office said.
The freeze, declared by Netanyahu in November in what he said was a bid to bring Palestinians to the negotiating table, excluded about 3,000 homes as well as some public buildings.
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, a Likud member, said on Sept. 25 that the prime minister wouldn’t have a Cabinet majority to extend the freeze.
Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 smaller settlements, which Israel calls outposts, were built during the past decade. The United Nations says settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. President Barack Obama has said the settlements aren’t legitimate.
Israel says settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.