Settlers get ready for celebrations Sunday as building resumes, promise to start constructing 2,066 housing units halted since November.
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH, HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
There are growing signs that the Palestinians will not follow through on their pledge to pull out of direct talks with Israel once the moratorium on new settlement construction expires this Sunday.Settlers have already planned a rally for Sunday, to celebrate the end of the 10- month freeze, and have promised to resume construction immediately on 2,066 housing units that have been halted since November.RELATED:Obama calls on Israel to extend freeze in UN speechMubarak, Merkel call on PA, Israel to be creative at talksOn Thursday, a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah indicated that the Palestinians would continue to talk even if the construction in the settlements is resumed.Still, from the podium at the UN General Assembly in New York, US President Barack Obama called on Israel to continue the freeze.“We believe that the moratorium should be extended. We also believe that talks should press on until completed,” Obama said.PA President Mahmoud Abbas stopped short of repeating his threat to pull out of the talks with Israel if the freeze is not extended.Abbas was quoted by the PA’s official Wafa news agency as saying that he was ready to reach a just and comprehensive agreement.Government sources said the US was pushing for a creative compromise between the position set forth by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has insisted that he must keep his word to let the moratorium end as scheduled, and that of Abbas, who has several times threatened that resumed building would scuttle the direct negotiations, which resumed earlier this month after they were halted in December 2008.According to the sources, the US is looking for a compromise between the parties that does not involve a unilateral concession on Israel’s part. Netanyahu is open to these efforts, but has not changed his plans to let the moratorium expire on Sunday.The prime minister has spoken with leaders from around the world on this issue in recent days, including US Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greece Prime Minister George Papandreou.Israel’s special envoy Yitzhak Molho is in the US to help find a solution with the Obama administration.According to government sources, Netanyahu told people in his bureau on Thursday night, “I have made great efforts to achieve peace. We have taken the unprecedented gesture of suspending construction in Judea and Samaria for 10 months. Unfortunately, the Palestinians wasted the last 10 months and entered the talks just three weeks ago under pressure from the Americans.“If the Palestinians want peace, they will remain in the talks, in order to reach a framework agreement within a year,” the prime minister continued. “I hope the Palestinians will not turn their back on peace.”He added that construction in West Bank settlements had continued through the last 17 years of talks, including in the last year of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s term in office.Speaking to US Jewish leaders in New York on Tuesday, Abbas spoke of the difficult choice he needed to make with regard to the talks.“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he said.Abbas comments were distributed by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which hosted him at a closeddoor dinner with more than 50 American Jewish leaders in New York.According to the transcript put out by the organization, Abbas expressed understanding for Israeli security concerns, and said that “we accept the state of a demilitarized Palestine.Demilitarization has been an fundamental demand for Netanyahu, who has indicated he wants to keep an Israeli presence along the eastern border to prevent the smuggling of rockets into the West Bank.Abbas said at the dinner that he would allow Jewish soldiers to participate in a “third-party” security force within Palestinian territory.Another contentious issue, the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, was one that would have to be “discussed,” according to Abbas.“Let us say that we want to solve this problem. What’s so important about this issue is that nobody can impose [their views] on the other while they are negotiating any issue.”When asked about Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas responded, “If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so” and said he would accept Israel’s characterization as a Jewish state if the Knesset voted to designate the state as such.His response didn’t sooth everyone in the crowd, which included heads of major Jewish organization, various Jewish streams and prominent activists across the political spectrum.Orthodox Union President Stephen Savitsky expressed dissatisfaction with Abbas’s response to his request that he recognize the special historical ties that Jews have with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, which Savitsky described as “dismiss[ive].”“President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created goodwill in the Jewish community,” Savitsky said.In his comments, Abbas also addressed the tragedy of the Holocaust, noting that he sent his ambassador in Poland to Auschwitz. “It was a crime against humanity. And we want these crimes not to be repeated,” he said, according to the transcript.He continued by condemning anti-Semitism and statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel, though he took a more calibrated line on Palestinian incitement.“I didn’t deny it. But I can say there is some incitement on the other side. It doesn’t mean we have to exchange blame and accusations here and there,” he said. “We want to put an end to this incitement.”Abbas described Netanyahu as “my partner in our quest for peace,” a formulation Netanyahu has used for the Palestinian leader, and described the prime minister’s recent statements about the Palestinian sovereignty as “encouraging.”At a separate dinner with Jewish leaders in New York Tuesday night, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also spoke about the importance of security.Violence “has to be dealt out of the equation permanently regardless of what happens in the peace process,” he told some 65 business, community and religious leaders at a dinner arranged by The Israel Project.He also talked about the need to end incitement against Israel, according to remarks distributed by the group.He described his government was committed to an “incitement- free environment.” He noted that,“incitement is a problem and we see it as such,” and said,“I don’t think one can ever say that we have done everything that could possibly be done … but we are trying,” Fayyad said.Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, head of The Israel Project, welcomed Fayyad’s participation and defended their invitation to him.“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome.We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ “However, there is nothing offensive about charm,” Mizrahi said in a statement distributed after the event. “More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas – especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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