Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bumpy road to pass - Settlement building freeze in West Bank set to expire tonight

A contentious issue between Israelis and Palestinians that some say could derail Mideast peace talks is set to reach a milestone on Sunday.

Israel's moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank is scheduled to end Sunday. Israelis and Palestinians are in the initial rounds of face-to-face peace talks, and Palestinians have said a restart by the Israelis would be reason enough to end talk.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas struck a hard line in a speech to the UN General Assembly yesterday, saying that Israel had to choose between settlements and peace.

He accused Israel of flouting UN resolutions and "relentlessly carrying out oppression, arrests and detentions, killings, destruction, demolition of homes, siege, settlement expansion, apartheid wall, violating and undermining the rights of our people and presence in their homeland without consequence."

He said Israel should be forced to meet its obligations, especially to stop construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to dismantle "the annexation apartheid wall."

"Despite the historic injustice that has been inflicted upon our people," Abbas said, "our wounded hands are still able to carry the olive branch from the rubble of the trees that the occupation uproots every day."

Despite the Palestinians' stated refusal to compromise, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reamined in the United States yesterday for more discussions.

Abbas met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York on Friday, who asked him not to make good on his threat to end talks. He also met with U.S. special envoy George Mitchell yesterday.

Israel's chief negotiator Isaac Molho also is staying in New York for discussions with Mitchell and U.S. President Barack Obama's adviser Dennis Ross.

Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that so far, all of Israel's proposals that would enable limited construction have been rejected by the Palestinians.

On Friday, Netanyahu met in Jerusalem with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who flew over from New York to try to persuade Netanyahu to extend the freeze. Netanyahu told Blair he would not be able to get the cabinet to approve such a move.

Netanyahu called his advisers to his Caesarea home Friday to discuss possible solutions, and held another meeting at his Jerusalem residence last night.

One of the ideas that have been raised is to extend the freeze for another three months, and set that as a deadline by which Israel and the PA must reach an agreement on borders – so that Israel would then know exactly where it was free to build.

Another idea, a variation of the same theme, is to extend the moratorium by another three months, but exclude from this moratorium some 2,000 units for which all the necessary permits have been granted and on which building could start immediately.

Among other ideas that have been raised are the following:
• Agree to the number of units that can be constructed each year, based on natural growth;
• Allow building in the large settlement blocks in areas adjacent to the existing construction line, but allow only the construction of public buildings needed for natural growth in all other settlements;
• Agree to gradual construction now, and to extend the moratorium at the beginning of the year, when the talks move into a more advanced stage;
• Allow housing construction in the largest settlements – Ma’aleh Adumim, Betar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit and Ariel – but construction for public building only in the rest of the settlements.

The Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam reported yesterday that the Americans told the Palestinian leadership that they understood its position regarding the freeze and that Obama had said so in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told reporters, "We are urging Israel to extend the moratorium and we are also making clear to the Palestinians that we do not believe that it is in their interest to walk out of the talks."

Meanwhile, four U.S. Congressmen are circulating a letter calling on Obama to pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in a bid to further the peace process, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

Pollard has served 25 years of a life sentence for spying on the United States for Israel.

According to the JTA, the congressmen - Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Adolphus Tanner and Anthony Weiner of New York and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey's Eighth Congressional District - have signed the letter and are circulating it in Congress.

The letter says pardoning Pollard would show Obama's good will toward Israelis.