Settlement Construction Threatens Mideast Talks

Israel plans to resume construction in its West Bank Jewish settlements on Sunday, a move that could lead the Palestinians to suspend direct peace talks. Despite public appeals from President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the 10-month-old curbs on new settlement construction in the West Bank will not be extended.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

We begin this hour with renewed tensions affecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. An Israeli freeze on settlement expansion is set to expire tonight. U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials are scrambling to reach a last-minute compromise. That compromise must be acceptable to both the largely pro-settlement coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinians who want settlement construction curbed while peace negotiations are under way. But in the West Bank, some settlement supporters have decided to act on their own.

NPR's Sheera Frenkel has more.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SHEERA FRENKEL: A row of bulldozers stand at the ready just outside the West Bank settlement of Revava, as residents smile and nod in their direction. Later today, pro-settler groups plan to use this equipment to break ground on a new building - a very public and unambiguous act meant to mark the end of Israel's 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction.

Sitting in his sprawling home in the settlement of Ma'ale Shomron, settler spokesman Danny Dayan said that Netanyahu's clear choice is to support Jewish expansion in the West Bank - which he calls by its Biblical name, Judea and Sumeria.

Mr. DANNY DAYAN (Chairman, Yesha Council): I think what we will see is our communities -more than 300,000 Israelis living in Judea and Sumeria - going back to normal. POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Nearly 500,000 Jews live amid more than 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

FRENKEL: The State Department estimates that nearly 500,000 Jews live amid more than 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Palestinians say the area is earmarked for their future state, and that ongoing Israeli construction there is the key impediment to peace talks.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Authority): (Foreign language spoken)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last night that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to choose between settlements and peace. But in a second statement this morning, Abbas said he would also not call off talks immediately.

President Barak Obama has repeatedly asked Israel to curb its settlement growth, most recently in a speech he delivered this week at the U.N. But Dayan said that the current Israeli leadership would not be able to meet Obama's request.

Mr. DAYAN: Mr. Netanyahu doesn't want, and cannot deliver, what President Obama expects. Therefore, if President Obama presses too hard, what will happen is that Netanyahu's coalition will disintegrate in a matter of weeks or months. We will see new Israeli elections in 2011, and the fate of the negotiations will be doomed.

FRENKEL: Netanyahu's largely right-wing government has already threatened to disband if he extends the freeze. And members of Netanyahu's own Likud Party are responsible for organizing the tractors in a cornerstone-laying ceremony at Revava later today.

Many Israeli political analysts feel that the widely publicized ceremony will not be enough to derail the peace talks. Yariv Oppenheimer, director of the left-wing NGO Peace Now, said that Israelis have grown indifferent to the settlements, especially as increasing numbers of middle-class Israeli families have moved in.

Mr. YARIV OPPENHEIMER (Director, Peace Now): No one really believed that Netanyahu is ready to have peace with the Palestinians. So no one really thinks that we are going to miss an opportunity.

FRENKEL: He also points out that that while the words freeze and moratorium are regularly used to describe the last 10 months, the process was more of a curb.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FRENKEL: In another West Bank settlement, Ariel, construction on a group of buildings in the middle of the city has gone on for some months.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FRENKEL: Since foundation for these buildings was poured before the freeze, construction here continues. Now, workers are eyeing half a dozen other projects nearby. They say that one way or another, they'll keep building.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Revava.

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