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Mideast peace talks at stake as settlement curbs ends

The fate of Middle East peace talks hangs in the balance as Israel gears up to resume West Bank settlement construction with a 10-month partial moratorium on building ending on Sunday night.

world Updated: Sep 27, 2010 07:47 IST

The fate of Middle East peace talks hangs in the balance as Israel gears up to resume West Bank settlement construction with a 10-month partial moratorium on building ending on Sunday night.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has vowed to walk out of the talks if construction resumes, telling the United Nations on Saturday that "Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements."

But Israel has made it clear the moratorium, enacted under heavy US pressure as a gesture to entice the Palestinians into direct talks, will not be extended.

And while officials have indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would accept a quiet compromise, with limited construction, his hardline coalition including members of his own Likud party was unlikely to concur.

"The cabinet decision is expiring and on Sunday night the building needs to resume. We don't need any special decisions or announcements," Sport and Culture Minister Limor Livnat of Likud told public radio on Saturday.

"The building needs to restart -- there are some 2,000 (housing) units that are already approved," she said.

Another Likud MP, Danny Danon, was planning on laying the symbolic cornerstone of a new neighbourhood in Revava settlement in the northern West Bank on Sunday to mark the end of the freeze.

"Cement trucks, bulldozers, and other earth-moving equipment are already in place in Revava, and the activists plan on marking the last hours of the freeze by laying the foundations of a new neighbourhood," a statement from his office said.

"We have decided that the best way to end the freeze is to begin building," said Danon, calling on Netanyahu to "resist the pressures of (US) President (Barack) Obama."

The deadline for the end of the freeze is widely accepted as midnight on September 26, 10 months after the original cabinet decision to impose it expires, although a military order sets the date at September 30.

Either way, the next days could prove crucial to the fragile peace process, with the future of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at stake.

The United States on Saturday engaged in last ditch efforts to prevent the collapse of talks.

Abbas met US peace envoy George Mitchell following a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday night as contacts continued behind the scenes.

"We are doing everything we can to keep the parties in direct talks," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a message on his Twitter account as Mitchell and Abbas met in a New York hotel.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak and lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu's point man on the talks, were also in New York, Israeli radio reported.

The peace talks resumed on September 2 following months of US shuttle diplomacy. The last round of direct talks collapsed when Israel launched its devastating offensive against the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in late 2008.

In a bid to resolve the settlements row, US officials have reportedly suggested a three-month extension to the moratorium during which time the two sides could agree on borders, which could neutralise the settlements dispute.

But Livnat told public radio it was "illogical" to expect the issue of borders that had defied years of earlier negotiations could suddenly be resolved in three months.

The international community considers Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, to be illegal. The settlements issue has long been among the thorniest in the peace process.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in more than 120 Jewish settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories expected to form the bulk of a future Palestinian state.

First Published: Sep 26, 2010 08:09 IST