Monday, 27 September 2010

Palestinians Blink in Settlement Poker Match

AOL News Monday, September 27th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Sept. 27) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have emerged victorious -- for now -- after a tense weekend of brinkmanship over West Bank settlement building that wrong-footed the Obama administration, divided the Palestinian leadership and perhaps humiliated both of them.

Netanyahu's refusal to heed President Barack Obama's plea at the United Nations on Friday to extend a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement building was a snub to the U.S. president and created major complications for the Palestinians.

Israeli contractors look at maps as they stand at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Monday, Sept. 27, 2010.

Ariel Schalit, AP
The expiration of an Israeli moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements Monday threw fledgling peace talks into turmoil. Here, contractors check a map at a settlement construction site.

Senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah told AOL News today there was now a clear split between the cabinet of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the negotiating team headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over whether to continue the peace talks that began in Washington in early September.

As tractors and bulldozers fanned out through the disputed area where the Palestinians hope to build their independent state, Netanyahu called on Abbas "to continue the good and sincere talks that we have just started, in order to reach an historic peace agreement between our two peoples."

"My intentions to achieve peace are serious and genuine," Netanyahu said.

"I say to President Abbas: For the future of both our peoples, let us focus on what is really important. Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year," he said.

Only last week, Abbas said Israel "must choose between settlements and peace" and described peace talks without a construction freeze as "a waste of time."

But speaking alongside President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris on Monday, Abbas appeared to blink first in the tense diplomatic poker game with Netanyahu.

"We are not rushing to respond, and we will study the consequences and their effect on the negotiations," Abbas said. "After meetings and consultations, we will formulate a stance and provide the Palestinian response to the cessation of the freeze."

Abbas, who had refused even to meet Netanyahu until nine months into the construction moratorium, said he would convene the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Central Committee of its main Fatah faction to formulate a unified Palestinian response before the matter is discussed at a special meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority cabinet, meeting in Ramallah today, issued a hardline statement that berated "Israeli attempts to bypass the terms of reference of the peace process and the Quartet Statement, which clearly states the need for a settlement freeze."

"The cabinet warned of the dangers of unleashing settlers to build new settlement posts and expand settlements in the West Bank including Jerusalem, in light of Israeli government refusal to extend the settlement freeze," the statement added.

A senior Palestinian official told AOL News that the cabinet had been caught off-guard by Abbas' more moderate response in Paris.

"The Cabinet statement was repeating the things that the president was saying until today. The president said what he said in Paris after the Cabinet meeting," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said the Palestinian leadership was expecting Abbas to suspend the peace talks if the freeze was broken.

He said that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was still in the United States, apparently trying to work out an arrangement that would permit some building while allowing the talks to continue.

One formula would be to impose a "quiet freeze" under which Israel would slow building permits to a trickle and allow construction only in the major settlement blocs that are likely to be involved in a land-swap with the Palestinians in any peace deal.

That way, Netanyahu can hold together his right-wing coalition while pursuing the chance of peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said it was "far too early to tell" if this game plan could produce results, but it was the only way for Netanyahu to stay at the table.

"Obama forced Netanyahu into a 10-month freeze, which was very difficult from an Israeli political perspective. Netanyahu got nothing in return that he could then use to justify extending the freeze. The peace talks are all about land for peace.

"Israel put land on the table, but the Palestinians didn't put their peace cards on the table," Steinberg told AOL News.

"Now we will hear lots of angry words and rhetoric at the Arab League, and we may have a short period of time for other pieces of the puzzle to be put in place," Steinberg said. "The Israelis will be waiting for the Palestinians to give ground on core issues like refugees. If those are in play, Netanyahu can implement a de facto freeze on the ground, but he needs a Palestinian quid pro quo."

While Netanyahu is under pressure to push ahead with settlement building from many members of his own government, and even his own party, Abbas is under pressure to quit the talks.

"I want to appeal to my brothers in the Palestinian Authority who have said that they do not want to renew talks with the enemy if the settlement of the territories continues," Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told the Syrian parliament.

"Negotiations not held from a position of power are absurd. Netanyahu is not the man who can bring peace to the region."

There are threats also from within the Palestinian leader's own Fatah movement.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the military wing of Fatah largely disbanded after their disastrous adoption of suicide bombings during the intifada uprising, warned that its fighters would teach the Israeli settlers "unforgettable lessons" if building continues.

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