Israel, Palestinians look to salvage Mideast talks

Associated Press
This photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 21. 2010, shows a view of a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
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In a case of high-stakes diplomacy, the Palestinians were waiting Friday for the latest American effort to break the standoff with Israel over Jewish settlement construction in areas the Palestinians want for their future state.

With a Sunday deadline looming for Israel to resume the contested building, the two sides' ability to reach a compromise will determine whether they continue with peace talks to address the much thornier issues fueling their decades-old conflict.

President Barack Obama has increasingly placed efforts to resolve the conflict at the center of his foreign policy, and on Thursday the U.S. leader made an impassioned appeal to the world at the United Nations to support a solution.

The direct talks between the parties stalled only three weeks after starting in Washington in early September over the impending end of a 10-month freeze on new Israeli settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians.

The measure — which the U.S. pushed for to coax Palestinians into negotiations — expires Sunday. A de facto freeze has also been in place in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital.

In his U.N. address, Obama called on Israel to extend the moratorium, saying it "has made a difference on the ground and improved the atmosphere for talks."

As the deadline approaches, U.S. officials are shuttling between the sides with proposals to keep alive what they see as a now-or-never effort to end decades of bloodshed.

"There is significant back and forth going on," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said late Thursday. U.S. officials were "reminding them (the parties) of their responsibilities" not to do anything to jeopardize the talks, he added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuffed Palestinian and U.S. calls for an extension of the freeze, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to quit the talks if construction resumes.

Netanyahu ordered his special envoy to the negotiations, Yitzhak Molcho, to remain in the United States for further talks. The Israeli leader has discussed the issue by phone with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and met Friday with Mideast envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Netanyahu has signaled a willingness to seek a way out of the impasse, saying earlier this month that the current restrictions on settlements will not remain in place, though there will still be some limits on construction.

An Israeli official said Friday that "all the proposed building for the coming year would in ... no way change the parameters for such a historic peace treaty."

"The sort of building that's being considered is minor and in no way seriously changes the current realities on the ground," he said, without offering specifics. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the search for a compromise was still in progress.

Netanyahu — a hard-liner who only recently accepted the idea of a Palestinian state — has balked at extending the moratorium, saying that would fracture his pro-settlement coalition government.

Abbas and his leading advisers were also in the U.S., meeting with American officials. Senior Palestinian officials said Thursday that their side would consider an expected U.S.-brokered compromise on the issue.

Speaking later to Palestinians in New York, Abbas reiterated he would quit negotiations if Israel resumed settlement building.

"We have told everyone that we will not continue with direct negotiations if the settlement freeze is not extended," the official Palestinian news agency WAFA on Friday quoted Abbas as saying. "This was our condition and our position, and we said it on every occasion."

On Friday, the Palestinians were waiting for the U.S. to come back to them after talking to the Israelis.

No details have emerged on what the compromise could entail, and officials on both sides of the conflict have refused to discuss the negotiations.

Some in Israel have proposed, for example, that limited building will resume but not the relatively unfettered construction that prevailed before the Israeli moratorium.

The West Bank settlements that are a major source of contention between the two sides are home to 300,000 Jewish settlers and eat up land the Palestinians want for their future state. Some 200,000 more Jews live in east Jerusalem.

The tense political climate has added to the volatility in the contested holy city, where the killing of a Palestinian man by a Jewish security guard sparked rioting earlier this week.

With a major Jewish holiday coinciding with weekly Muslim prayers Friday, Israeli authorities deployed a reinforced contingent of thousands of police in and around east Jerusalem as a precaution, and limited entry to Muslim worshippers.

Meanwhile, Palestinian health officials said a Gaza fisherman was killed early Friday by Israeli naval fire. The Israeli military said a fishing boat strayed from the limits Israel has prescribed and was fired upon after ignoring warning shots.

Also, Mohammed Dababish, a senior Hamas security official arrested in Egypt on suspicion of posing a threat to Egyptian security, has been released and was en route to his home in Gaza, Hamas and Egyptian officials said.

The Palestinians themselves are bitterly divided between Abbas' Fatah movement, which governs the West Bank, and the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza, a coastal strip seized by the group three years ago. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel and has denounced the U.S.-backed peace talks as illegitimate.

Unexpectedly, Fatah and Hamas officials met late Friday in Damascus in a new attempt to reconcile their rivalries. Hamas' Damascus-based leader Khaled Mashaal and senior Fatah official, Azzam el-Ahmed, who arrived in Syria on Thursday, headed the talks. Egypt has been trying to reconcile the two rivals since for more than a year without success.

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Associated Press Writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.

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