U.S. trying to salvage peace talks

A Palestinian shepherd walks in the West Bank near the Jewish settlement of Revava on Saturday.  (Associated Press)
A Palestinian shepherd walks in the West Bank near the Jewish settlement of Revava on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Israeli decision on West Bank key

JERUSALEM – U.S. officials scrambled Saturday to find a compromise to a dispute threatening new Middle East peace talks, with Israel preparing to resume construction on disputed West Bank land and Palestinians threatening to walk out of negotiations in protest.

Despite heavy pressure from the U.S., United Nations and European Union, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to extend Israel’s 10-month partial moratorium on West Bank construction past midnight tonight.

Both sides began bracing for possible fallout from a breakdown in talks.

“It’s still in play,” said one Israeli government official Saturday who was not authorized to speak publicly about ongoing meetings in New York to find a resolution. “There’s an intensive effort. But at this stage, I can’t tell you if there’s something that will be produced.”

During a speech Saturday at the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned, “Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II issued the direst warnings during an interview Thursday on “The Daily Show,” saying that if Palestinians walk out of negotiations, the region should “expect another war by the end of the year.”

Others, however, said a collapse of direct talks could be less traumatic, perhaps delivering only a temporary setback. They noted that despite the differences on settlements, both sides – as well as President Barack Obama – have signaled a desire to keep negotiations alive.

“Because there is such an incentive for everyone not to let this collapse, I think they’ll just go back to having talks about getting back into talks,” said Jonathan Rynhold, senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “It doesn’t mean everyone will just walk away.”

Before the launch of face-to-face negotiations early this month, Israelis and Palestinians participated in so-called proximity talks, in which the U.S. shuttled between the pair.

Rynhold contrasted the current climate with the breakdown of the Camp David peace talks in 2000, which led to the second Palestinian uprising and also helped topple Israel’s government.

Because most Israelis and Palestinians are so skeptical about prospects for the current talks, anger and frustration over their collapse will probably be less, Rynhold said. “We won’t see the emotional sense of disappointment that was there in 2000,” he said.

Despite the concerns of Jordan’s Abdullah about a resumption of war, many Palestinians expressed doubts as to whether the collapse of direct talks would drive young men into the streets.

“Palestinians are not ready for another intifada,” said Ilayyan Hindi, a researcher in Israeli affairs for the Palestinian Authority. “They survive as a result of foreign aid and if this stopped (due to a return of violence or terrorism), they would find themselves in a very difficult situation. People are tired of conflict.”

Israeli settlers backed by right-wing lawmakers were preparing to resume construction today, even before the moratorium expires at midnight.

Said Rynhold: “Once you step outside the negotiating framework, it’s like throwing cards into the air.”

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