TEL AVIV // Israeli and Palestinian leaders signalled yesterday that they may find a way to continue peace talks even though Israel has yet to extend its halt on settlement construction.
Israel's 10-month partial freeze on new construction in the West Bank ended yesterday, and the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to walk out of the negotiations should the moratorium not be renewed. Senior officials from both sides yesterday continued the intensive discussions that took place at the weekend in New York in a bid to settle the impasse. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Yitzhak Molcho, an Israeli negotiator, remained in the US yesterday to try to find a middle ground.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, whose Palestinian Authority is conducting the talks with Israel, appeared less resolute yesterday about withdrawing from the talks. Asked in an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat whether he would announce an end to the peace process if the freeze ends, he said: "No, we will go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab follow-up committee." He was referring to the committee of the Arab League that had granted him the green light to conduct face-to-face talks with Israel.
Speaking to Jewish leaders in Paris later yesterday, Mr Abbas called on Israel to extend the freeze, saying that peace talks would be "a waste of time" without it. David Axelrod, a top aide to Barack Obama, the US president, said yesterday he hoped Washington could still broker an agreement. "We are going to...push throughout this day to get some kind of resolution," he told ABC News just hours before the deadline.
Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, sounded a note of optimism. "I think the chance of reaching a mutual agreed understanding about the moratorium is 50/50," Mr Barak told the BBC. "I think the chances of having a peace process are much higher." He spoke in an interview before boarding a plane to Israel after talks in New York with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and other US diplomats.
Mr Barak, head of the Labour Party, the only centrist member of Israel's predominantly pro-settler coalition, added that he was intent on convincing members of the government to extend the moratorium although he was not confident of success. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said several times in recent weeks that the freeze will not continue. Mr Abbas said he has "yet to receive word" on Israel's approach to construction now that the halt has ended. "We will make a decision in response to developments on the ground," he said.
The Palestinians were unlikely to respond to the moratorium's end with violence, Mr Abbas said. "We won't go back to that again," he said. Mr Abbas told Agence France-Presse in Paris yesterday that he would meet the follow-up committee on October 4. The reports come as Jewish settlers, joined by right-wing politicians, marked the end of the freeze at several sites throughout the territory that Palestinians want as part of their future state.
Mr Netanyahu, signalling concern that media coverage of the settlers' events may draw international condemnation, urged them to show restraint. Mr Netanyahu, who had imposed the construction restrictions last November to draw the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, also instructed his cabinet ministers not to speak to the media. Some Israeli commentators yesterday said the premier is emerging politically and diplomatically victorious from the dispute over the settlement moratorium. Mr Netanyahu appears to have avoided antagonising both Washington, which pressured the premier to extend the freeze, as well as settlers and rightist members of his coalition, which had pressed him not to continue the halt.
According to Aluf Benn, a senior commentator for the newspaper Haaretz, Mr Obama will have a hard time forcing Mr Netanyahu to extend the freeze before November's US congressional elections as his Democratic Party seeks to win more support from US Jews. Furthermore, the peace process is likely to continue even amid settlement expansion because Mr Abbas seems unwilling to allow it to collapse, Mr Benn added.
"At the end of the freeze, Netanyahu finds himself exactly where he wants to be: at the political centre, without having made decisions that would force him to choose a side," Mr Benn wrote yesterday. "The real decisions, if there will be any, have been left for next summer, just before the deadline on the negotiations for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement."