Abbas waits on decision to pull out of peace talks

THE Palestinian president said yesterday he would wait at least a week before deciding whether to quit Mideast peace talks, giving US mediators precious time to broker a compromise after Israel refused to extend its 10-month moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction.

President Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the newly launched negotiations if Israel resumed building in the settlements. But with the stakes so high, Abbas said during a visit to Paris that he would not make any hasty decisions.

He said he would consult with the Palestinian leadership before discussing the matter with representatives of the 22-member Arab League next Monday.

“We will not have any quick reactions,” he said at a news conference standing beside French president Nicolas Sarkozy. “After this chain of meetings, we will be able to put out a position that clarifies the Palestinian and Arab opinion on this issue now that Israel has refused to freeze settlements.”

The construction restrictions that the Israeli government ordered expired at midnight on Sunday with no sign Israel was heeding US and Palestinian pressure to keep the curbs in place.

That threw the peace talks, which only restarted three weeks ago, into major doubt. But the Americans said they were still working with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to find a formula that would keep the negotiations alive.

Abbas yesterday urged Israel to extend the settlement slowdown for three or four more months to allow for a discussion of “fundamental issues” in negotiations.

In Cairo, an Arab League official said Arab foreign ministers were expected to endorse whatever position Abbas took.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank jubilantly marked the end of the construction curbs, sending thousands of blue and white balloons into the air and breaking ground on a new kindergarten.

They vowed to build thousands of new homes.

Yesterday, there was only a smattering of construction in different settlements across the West Bank.

Settler leaders acknowledged construction activity would be minimal in the coming months, in part because banks and developers are reluctant to commit to new projects out of fear that building will be stopped again

Palestinians regard settlement as a major obstacle to peace because the construction is on land they claim for part of their future state.

Some 300,000 Israeli settlers live in communities scattered across the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem, the area of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

Immediately after the restrictions expired at midnight, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to Abbas to keep negotiating.

Israeli defence officials said Defence Minister Ehud Barak has floated a proposal under which any future construction – even projects with all the necessary permits – would need his personal approval.

Under this scenario, Netanyahu would in effect be able to leave the building restrictions in place without openly declaring this. But it was not clear whether Netanyahu favours the idea.


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