Al-Jazeera English
September 26, 2010 - 12:00am

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has said Palestinians would not immediately walk away from peace talks with Israel even if it does not extend a 10-month limited settlement moratorium due to expire on Sunday at midnight.

Abbas's comments on Sunday came as diplomatic efforts intensified to try to get Israel to extend the partial freeze on construction by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

A day earlier, Abbas had told the UN General Assembly in New York that Israel must choose between "peace and the continuation of illegal settlements" if it wants international talks to succeed.

But on Sunday Abbas told al-Hayat newspaper that if the freeze was not continued he would "go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab follow-up committee".

As Abbas travelled to Paris for a meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, to "expolore developments in the peace process", Israelis and US mediators were racing to find a compromise that would allow the fragile talks to continue.

Signs of optimism

Shimon Peres, Israel's president and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, were en route from the US to Israel on Sunday morning after taking part in efforts to hammer out a compromise with US and Palestinian representatives.

But Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians, and Yitzhak Molcho for the Israelis, remained in the US, leaving a window open for a last-minute agreement.

In another sign that a way could be found out of a crisis threatening negotiations that began less than a month ago, Barak said there was more than an even chance the peace process would continue.

US officials' efforts to have the partial freeze extended continued even as Jewish settlers were preparing to resume construction in the West Bank.

"We are urging Israel to extend the moratorium," Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said.

"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."

Rami Khouri, the director of the of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera that the freeze is likely to be extended but that it would probably no longer be called a moratorium.

"The Israeli government must be able to say to itself and to its people that it is continuing to build settlements in the historic land of Israel that God gave to the Jewish people in perpetuity, as they see it, and the Palestinians must be able to say to their government and people that there is a continuation of the freeze - the selective freeze or the selective slowdown - so that both sides can feel that they have what they need."

But Khouri said he did not think there would be "any change in facts on the ground".

"The settlements will continue to expand in some areas but not others," he said. "The Americans will be able to continue what they see as their political mediation.

"And both sides will be able to say they're politically protected at home but still engaged in a negotiating process."

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, whose right-wing coalition government includes pro-settler parties, has so far deflected pleas from Barack Obama, the US president, to extend the freeze, but he has said renewed construction might be on a reduced scale.

Palestinian protests

Israeli settlers began preparing for the end of the moratorium on Saturday.

In the Revava settlement, deep inside the West Bank, bulldozers, cement mixers and other equipment were moved in as residents planned to symbolically lay the cornerstone for a new neighbourhood, officials said.

"The moment that the freeze is lifted, they will do the work openly," Danny Danon, a pro-settler Likud politician, said.

Outside the West Bank city of Hebron, violence broke out as Palestinians protested against the presence of another settlement.

More than 430,000 Jews live in well over 100 settlements established across the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land that Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 Middle East war.

Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna reporting from Israeli settlement of Modi'in Illit in the occupied West Bank said: "This is a process that is continuing, the enlargement of the settlements creeping into the West Bank."

Many settlers there, he said, are unemployed ultra-Orthadox Jews.

"The government has moved them from areas where economic ability is needed to one further away," said Hanna, "where - critically - the price of housing is far less than it would be in any of the major urban centres."

The World Court deems settlements as illegal, although Israel disputes this.

Palestinians say the settlers will make it impossible for them to create a viable state and the issue is one of the core problems standing in the way of any peace deal.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, warned Israel that it would bear the blame if the talks broke down over the issue.

"If Israel fails in its commitment to continue freezing its settlement activities, then it would expose the negotiation process to failure and it would shoulder full responsibility before the region and world public opinion," he said.

But Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based advocacy group American Task Force on Palestine, told Al Jazeera that the Palestinians cannot afford to walk away from the talks.

"I think, in particular, they can't afford to alienate the United States in that manner," he said.

"It is a big political problem for the Palestinians to stay in the talks if the Israelis not just don't renew the moratorium but start building in any significant way.

However, I think it is a bigger diplomatic problem to walk away at this stage and the Palestinians can't afford to be blamed for the collapse."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017