Mideast talks face collapse

Last-minute efforts to salvage dialogue over settlement freeze end

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has vowed to walk out of the talks should the construction of Jewish homes on occupied Palestinian land restart after the moratorium ends.

“Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements,” he told the United Nations in New York on Saturday, denouncing “the mentality of expansion and domination” that drives Israel’s policies in the West Bank.

Despite Abbas’ threats, Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu insists that the moratorium on new construction in the West Bank, will end as planned, and has shrugged off a wave of international pressure to convince him otherwise.

As the clock ticked, the settlers planned a high-profile ceremony to lay the cornerstone for a new neighbourhood at Kiryat Netafim in the Ariel settlement bloc in the northern West Bank.

Thousands of rightwing activists from Netanyahu’s Likud party were to attend, before heading to the nearby settlement of Revava for a countdown to the end of the ban.

Bulldozers and cement trucks are already in place in both settlements, ready to begin work on Sunday evening. “In the same way that the freeze was total, the restart of construction must be total,” Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha settlers’ organisation, told army radio.

The cornerstone-laying event was a clear message to Netanyahu, said Likud parliamentarian Danny Danon. “The message... on Sunday will be aimed directly at the prime minister: stay true to the way of the Likud, resist the pressure of (US) President (Barack) Obama and continue building throughout the state of Israel,” he said.

Figures quoted by settlement watchdog group Peace Now show that once the freeze ends, the settlers can begin work on 13,000 new housing units, all of which have already received government approval.

Peace Now activists are to hold a demonstration of support for extending the moratorium outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence.

The settlement issue is one of the most intractable disputes between the two sides. There are some 500,000 Israelis living in more than 120 settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories the Palestinians want for their promised state.

While Israeli officials say Netanyahu may accept a quiet compromise, it was unlikely to be approved by his largely nationalist coalition government.

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