WITH a midnight deadline looming, Israel’s prime minister yesterday called on West Bank settlers to “show restraint” following the end of a government-ordered construction slowdown.
The deadlock over Jewish settlements appeared to be going down to the last minute, though there were small signs from the Israeli and Palestinian sides that a deal would be reached.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will not extend the slowdown on construction he imposed exactly 10 months ago.
The Palestinians, opposed to all settlements built on territories they claim for a future state, have said they will quit negotiations if Israel resumes building.
Seeking to lower the tensions, Netanyahu issued a statement calling on settler groups “to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future – just as they showed restraint and responsibility during all 10 months of the new construction suspension.” Netanyahu also instructed his cabinet ministers not to speak to the media.
Settler leaders rejected Netanyahu’s call, however, and vowed to proceed with a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony later in the day at Revava, a settlement deep inside the West Bank, marking the end of the construction restrictions.
The Israeli leader imposed the slowdown last November in a bid to draw the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians initially rejected the offer as insufficient because it contained loopholes that allowed thousands of West Bank apartments to be built. But in recent weeks they have said the measures must remain in place if they are to continue negotiations.
Netanyahu, under heavy pressure from his pro-settler coalition partners, has said he will not extend the restrictions. The deadlock has created the first crisis in the new round of Mideast talks, just weeks after they were launched at the White House.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials over the weekend in hopes of forging a deal. Before boarding a plane back to Israel, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told the BBC late yesterday that chances of success were “50-50”.
The chief negotiators, Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians and Yitzhak Molcho for the Israelis, remained in the US, leaving a window open for a last-minute agreement.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved