Obama Seeks Building Halt as Middle East Talks Resume

President Barack Obama needed 18 months to persuade Palestinians and Israelis to hold direct peace talks. Now he has 12 days to make sure the negotiations aren’t derailed by a dispute over settlement construction.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who started negotiations in Washington on Sept. 2, meet for a second round today at the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. Clouding the talks is the Sept. 26 expiration of a temporary halt Netanyahu declared on West Bank building, which Obama asked him last week to extend.

Abbas has said he will stop negotiations if construction resumes. While Netanyahu says there has been no change in plans to let the freeze expire, a senior government official said building could be stopped administratively without a formal extension.

“If there’s not some type of settlement moratorium, even partial, it will be a major blow to the process and the Obama administration,” said Scott Lasensky, who co-wrote a book called “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace” with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. “Given that this is the Middle East, there will probably be some brinkmanship” in reaching a compromise.

Obama’s Message

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s in Egypt to help manage the talks, met with President Hosni Mubarak today. Mubarak was also scheduled to meet separately with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Abbas and Netanyahu have agreed to meet every two weeks for a year to reach a framework agreement leading to a formal peace settlement. The two will also meet tomorrow in Jerusalem, accompanied by Clinton. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will attend today’s talks at Sharm el-Sheikh.

Talks will focus on core issues including Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders and security.

Speaking at a Sept. 10 White House news conference, Obama said that he talked to Netanyahu about the importance he places on curtailing West Bank home-building, and told the Israeli premier that “it makes sense to extend that moratorium.”

En route to the talks yesterday, Clinton told reporters that the U.S. wants the construction halt extended. She urged the Israelis and Palestinians to focus on the larger goal of a comprehensive peace.

If the issue of borders and territory were settled, Clinton said, it would “eliminate the debate about settlements because some areas would be inside Israel and some areas would not be inside Israel.”

Framework Agreement

Because Defense Ministry permission is required for building in the territory Israel captured from Jordan in 1967, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has the authority to block construction by withholding approval. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Israel’s negotiating strategy is secret, said Netanyahu is considering such a de facto freeze.

Netanyahu told Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair on Sept. 12 that after the moratorium ends Israel won’t build all of the tens of thousands of homes in various stages of approval, said an official familiar with the conversation, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Occupied Territory

Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 embryonic settlements, which Israel calls outposts, have sprung up during the past decade. The United Nations says that settlements are illegal and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. Obama has said they 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 Middle East war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.

Netanyahu used administrative means to defuse a clash with the U.S. over building in east Jerusalem after 1,600 new homes were approved there by a government planning committee during a visit in March by Vice President Joe Biden. Netanyahu has since required that any future proposals be passed through his office.

“We might see some kind of settlement activity on a low profile,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al- Azhar University in Gaza City. “I don’t think we will see an expansion that will provoke the Americans or the Palestinians.”

Political Trouble

Limiting settlement construction could spell political trouble for Netanyahu, whose government collapsed during his first term as prime minister in 1998 after concessions he made in negotiations with the Palestinians. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the second-biggest party in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, Yisrael Beitenu, declared Sept. 6 that he has the political muscle to stop any extension of the housing moratorium.

“He cannot hide behind Barak,” said Dan Schueftan, deputy director of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center. “Everybody will know the decision is Netanyahu’s.”

Netanyahu declared the moratorium last November in a bid to restart peace talks, which were frozen for 20 months after Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip it said was aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets at its southern towns and cities. He said housing construction would be stopped for 10 months in West Bank settlements, excluding some 3,000 homes that already received government approval, as well as some public buildings.

While Abbas may decide to keep negotiating even if limited settlement construction continues, his Fatah party would probably be punished by voters if he does and the talks fail to make progress, said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster.

“It would be an indication to people in the street that the talks are a charade,” said Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “He would be taking a lot of risk.”