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Israeli Foreign Minister Touts Settlement Building

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Israeli Foreign Minister Touts Settlement Building

Middle East

Israeli Foreign Minister Touts Settlement Building

Israeli Foreign Minister Touts Settlement Building

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Israel's government has promised voters that a slowdown in settlement building would end later this month. Palestinians say they will walk out of peace talks, if construction restarts. In an Israeli settlement between Jericho and Jerusalem, construction is underway, and about 300 Palestinian workers from Hebron are bused to the building site.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that started last week are quickly running up against a challenge. A deadline is approaching for Israels government to make a decision. And that decision could prompt Palestinians to walk out of the talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to decide soon whether to extend a partial moratorium on West Bank settlement building or let it expire. NPRs Deborah Amos reports from Jerusalem.

DEBORAH AMOS: After the optimistic speeches in Washington and the promise of a peace deal within a year, another timetable threatens to unravel the U.S.-brokered negotiations: the countdown to renewed construction in Israeli settlements at the end of the month.�

Israels foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said he will use the power of his party to ensure that building resumes.�Liebermans challenge came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators returned from Washington. In speeches and interviews he said a peace deal is an unrealistic goal.�

The controversy continued last night as the foreign minister and the Israeli president contradicted each other in an assessment of the talks for foreign diplomats. President Shimon Peres framed the fight as a clash of views.

President SHIMON PERES (Israel): Between the most pessimistic and the most optimistic voice in our government. Its for you to judge.

AMOS: But there is pressure within the prime ministers party to lift the construction ban because extending the moratorium threatens to bring down the government.�Liebermans party is the second largest in parliament, and if he walks out, the government falls.

There is also pressure from Israeli settlers, who have extensive political clout. They plan to start building again at the end of the month.�

(Soundbite of construction)

AMOS: In Kfar Adumim, about a twenty minute drive east of Jerusalem, a cement truck poured the foundation for a house the government approved despite the freeze.

The foreman here points to dozens of structures across the valley, empty houses that only need the finishing touches for Israeli families to move in.�

The construction work crew is Palestinian - young men from Arab villages nearby. Yusef Awad says there are no jobs where he lives.�

Mr. YUSEF AWAD: (Through translator) We dont have work there, so we work here. If there will be work in Israel, we will work in Israel.

AMOS: And, Awad says, he wants the construction ban lifted too. The slowdown has cost him badly needed wages, and the prospects for peace are uncertain.�

Mr. AWAD: (Through translator) I dont know about the prospects of these negotiations. But all I know, that if they will also make sure we have work, it will be positive.�

AMOS: Since the ban, settlement housing construction has slowed, but more than 2,000 units have been built in the first quarter of 2010, according to Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement movement. The settlements are a crucial issue for the Palestinians, says Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, because expanding Israeli settlements encroaches on the future Palestinian state.�

Mr. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI (Member, Palestinian Parliament): You see, its like a situation where two sides are sitting negotiating over a piece of cheese, and while the Palestinians are talking, the Israeli side is eating the piece of cheese. You are allowing one side to destroy the goal of the process.�

AMOS: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been giving his assessment of the talks to Arab audiences. Weve stated clearly, he said in interviews, that if the freeze does not last, there will be no negotiations.

Israels prime minister hasn't said how he will resolve the issue. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet next week in Egypt, along with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, with two weeks to go before the settlement construction freeze is set to expire.�

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: And you hear Deborah's coverage here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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