REVAVA, West Bank – Jewish settlers released balloons and broke ground on a kindergarten in celebration Sunday as a 10-month construction slowdown expired, while U.S. and Israeli leaders tried to figure out how to keep Palestinians from walking out of peace talks over the end of the restrictions.
After the slowdown ran out at midnight, there was no Palestinian statement about the future of the talks. The Palestinians asked for an Oct. 4 meeting of an Arab League body to discuss the situation, possibly giving diplomats an extra week to work out a compromise.
Minutes after the expiration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the Palestinians not to walk away, but instead to maintain constant contact “to achieve a historic framework accord within a year.” In a statement, Netanyahu said his “intention to achieve peace is genuine.”
Palestinians have questioned whether they can make peace with Netanyahu, known as a hard-liner.
Israeli settlers were not waiting, celebrating the end of the slowdown and planning to send bulldozers into action in two places in the West Bank early today.
In Revava, a settlement deep in the West Bank, activists released 2,000 balloons in the blue and white of the Israeli flag at sundown Sunday. The balloons were meant to symbolize the 2,000 apartments that settlers say are ready to be built immediately.
“Today it’s over, and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again,” settler leader Dani Dayan told the crowd. “We return with new energy and a new determination to populate this land.”
It was unclear how the official end of the slowdown would affect construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already signaled future settlement construction will be kept to a minimum, in contrast to relatively unfettered housing activity of past Israeli governments.
The Palestinians have said they will quit the negotiations if Israel resumes building, though President Mahmoud Abbas said in a published interview Sunday in the pan-Arabic daily al-Hayat that he would consult with Arab partners first to weigh his options.
Speaking in Paris on Sunday, Abbas said, “There is only one choice in front of Israel: either peace or settlements.”
The settlers’ festivities went ahead despite Netanyahu’s call for them to show restraint as the curbs are lifted. Palestinians oppose all settlements built on territories they claim for a future state, and renewed building could endanger negotiations launched early this month by the Obama administration.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Sunday with Netanyahu and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the representative of the “Quartet” of Mideast peacemakers, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
“We keep pushing for the talks to continue,” Crowley said.