Moratorium ends, but major building not expected

Netanyahu calls on Abbas to "continue sincere, good talks with goal of reaching historic peace agreement between two peoples"; Abbas will not announce he is quitting talks.

settlement building rally 311 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
settlement building rally 311
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Israel’s 10-month moratorium on new construction in the West Bank settlements expired at midnight Sunday, but Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to devote another week to finding a compromise that will keep the recently relaunched direct talks from breaking down over the issue.
During this period, PA President Mahmoud Abbas will not announce that he is quitting the talks, and, because of Succot, there is not expected to be any sudden, major construction boom in the settlements – even though theoretically work could start immediately on some 2,000 housing units for which all the permits have already been granted.
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The idea of buying another week’s time to negotiate emerged from various meetings US envoy George Mitchell held over the weekend with Abbas and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who were both in New York.
As the moratorium expired at midnight, the Prime Minister's Office put out a statement calling on Abbas to "continue the sincere and good talks that have just begun, with the goal of reaching a historic  peace agreement between our two peoples."
The statement said that in the last few days Netanyahu had intensive contact with Clinton and other senior officials in the US Administration. He also spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II,
In those conversations, according to the statement, Netanyahu said Israel was willing to continue the intensive talks in the coming days in order to find a way to keep the direct talks alive.
"I hope that President Abbas will remain in the talks and continue with me on the path of peace which we started three weeks ago, after many in the world have now realized that my intentions of reaching peace are serious and sincere and that I honor my commitments," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu said that his government has gone a long way in improving the Palestinians living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.
"I say to President Abbas, for the sake of both our peoples, let us focus on what is truly important – accelerated, sincere and continuous talks to reach a historic framework agreement within a year."
Barak returned to Israel on Sunday, and Abbas went to Paris for meetings on the issue with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, who was also involved in the deliberations, has remained in the US to continue the talks.
Abbas, in an interview published Sunday in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, indicated that he would not immediately leave the talks with the expiration of the moratorium, and seemed content to let the Arab League decide the issue, requesting an urgent meeting of the Arab League on October 4.
The Arab League is the body that gave Abbas the green light last month to enter direct talks with Israel, even though the Netanyahu government refused to declare an end to all settlement construction as Abbas had demanded.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is not expected to call either his inner cabinet – the forum known as the septet – or the security cabinet together until after Succot to discuss a possible compromise solution.
Barak briefed Netanyahu by phone on his conversations in the US, but the two have not yet met since Barak returned from the United States, as Netanyahu is spending the holiday at his home in Caesarea.
In the meantime, talks will continue in the US, and if a compromise is reached, Netanyahu and Abbas may meet next week to announce it.
Sending the issue to the Arab League, according to one school of thought in Jerusalem, is a graceful way for Abbas to remain in the negotiations despite an end to the moratorium, enabling him to say – perhaps – that this is the will of the Arab League.
US President Barack Obama’s top adviser David Axelrod said Sunday that the sides were still working on a compromise.
“The parties are still working, they’re still talking,” Axelrod said on ABC’s This Week. “Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and her team are working with them.
“We’re very eager to keep these talks going. We think this is an unparalleled opportunity and a rare one, and we have to – we have to seize the advantage of that, and we are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to – to get some kind of resolution,” he said.
Asked if he thought the Palestinians would walk away from the talks, as they have threatened to do, when the moratorium expires, Axelrod said, “I understand what the public pronouncements have been, but the parties are at the table. They are talking. They’re trying to work this through, and we’re hopeful that they will.”
A few hours prior to the expiration of the moratorium, and in an apparent effort to downplay the end of it and keep anyone from gloating, Netanyahu issued a statement calling on both the settlers and politicians to “show restraint and responsibility today and down the road – just as they have shown restraint and responsibility during the 10- month construction moratorium.”
He also called on his ministers not to publicly discuss the matter.
Despite a largely symbolic and demonstrative event held by activists at Revava on Sunday to mark the end of the moratorium, there was no indication on the ground that there would be a massive building boom in the near future.
Netanyahu has said that the issue is not “all or nothing” – either a complete halt to all building or a massive construction surge.
Barak, in an interview broadcast Sunday on the BBC, said he thought the chance of “achieving a mutual agreed understanding about the moratorium is 50/50.”
But, he said, “I think the chances of having a peace process is much higher.”
Barak said he hoped the peace process would “not be blocked by this moratorium issue and that we will sail full engines forwards [to] substantial negotiations and agreement.”