Image: A cement mixer pours cement
Jim Hollander  /  EPA
A cement mixer pours the first load of cement into a symbolic foundation of a new house in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Netafim in the West Bank on Sunday, as the government-imposed 10-month building freeze comes to a close.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/26/2010 6:15:12 AM ET 2010-09-26T10:15:12

Palestinians would not immediately end peace talks with Israel if it did not extend a 10-month limited settlement moratorium expiring on Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying.

In another sign that a way could be found out of a crisis threatening negotiations that began less than a month ago, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said there was more than an even chance the peace process would continue.

Abbas has said repeatedly he would walk out of direct negotiations with Israel unless the partial halt to building remained in place. Palestinians view Israel's settlements as a formidable obstacle to statehood.

But asked in an interview conducted on Friday with pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat whether he would declare an end to the negotiations if the partial construction freeze did not continue, Abbas said: "No, we will go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab (League) follow-up committee."

He was referring to an Arab League forum that gave him the go-ahead to pursue direct peace talks with Israel that began on Sept. 2. The 10-month settlement moratorium expires at midnight (2200 GMT) on Sunday.

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Obama has urged Israel to continue the freeze, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition is packed with pro-settler parties, has offered only to limit the scope of renewed building rather than order a moratorium extension.

Israeli and Palestinian officials met U.S. diplomats in New York over the weekend to try to find a solution and to prevent the much-heralded negotiations from falling at the first hurdle.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who held talks over the past several days in New York on the issue, said there was a better than even chance the peace negotiations would continue even without a moratorium.

"I think that the chance of achieving a mutually agreed understanding about (a) moratorium is 50-50. I think that the chances of having a peace process is much higher," he said in a BBC interview.

"Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly Saturday.

He said the Palestinians and the wider Middle East are continuously pushed into "the corner of violence and conflict" as a result of Israel's "mentality of expansion and domination."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington was "doing everything we can to keep the parties in the direct talks." He said U.S. special envoy on the Middle East, George Mitchell, met Abbas for 30 minutes on Saturday.

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Though the freeze expires at midnight, some of Netanyahu's allies, including members of his own Likud party, are planning to mark the end of the moratorium earlier, by holding a cornerstone-laying ceremony for new homes in the remote Revava settlement in the northern West Bank at sundown on Sunday.

Israeli settlers had hauled construction equipment into a Jewish settlement deep inside the West Bank, officials said Saturday, preparing to break ground on a new housing project.

Open to compromise?
With the clock ticking, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to broker a last-minute compromise before Sunday's midnight deadline in hopes of averting a breakdown in talks.

Abbas and top Israeli officials, including the defense minister and Netanyahu's chief negotiator, were all in the U.S. working on the issue. Clinton has urged both sides not to take provocative actions that could derail the negotiations.

As negotiations proceeded in the U.S., there were signs that both sides are willing to compromise.

While Abbas hinted that he would not halt negotiations even if the moratorium was not extended, Netanyahu has signaled that future construction will be far less than the thousands of new homes currently in the pipeline.

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An Israeli official familiar with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's negotiations in the U.S. said Israel had floated the idea of requiring all future construction to be personally approved by Barak. This scenario would essentially leave the current restrictions in place without formally declaring so.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations.

Still, Israel's military chief last week warned that violence could erupt if peace talks break down — a concern that was underscored by rioting in east Jerusalem following the shooting death of a Palestinian man Wednesday.

Violence broke out again Saturday, as Israeli riot troops clashed with Palestinian protesters demonstrating against a settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron. An Associated Press photographer was briefly detained and roughed up by security forces and suffered a broken rib. The army claimed the photographer had refused calls to allow troops to operate.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Explainer: Quest for Mideast peace: An overview

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead with a bid to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, despite a threatened U.S. veto. U.S. President Barack Obama says the path to peace in the Middle East is through resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The last round of such talks broke down in 2010 with the two sides far apart on key issues. Click on the links on the left to find out more.

    Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, PBS, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations

  • Jerusalem

    Image: Jerusalem's Old City
    AP file

    Israel claims the entire city as its own undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in principle, but says Jerusalem would remain Israel's "indivisible and eternal" capital. Israel's claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.

  • West Bank

    Image: Israeli soldiers patrol the old city in the West Bank city of Hebron
    Abed Al Hashlamoun  /  EPA

    One of the disputed Israeli-occupied territories with areas of limited Palestinian self-government. The scores of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank have long been a sore point in Mideast peacemaking. Israel began settling the territory soon after capturing it along with Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

    The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to roughly 500,000 Israelis interspersed among 2.6 million Palestinians, are gobbling up land they claim for a future state. The international community considers them illegal, and President Barack Obama has been an outspoken critic.

    The West Bank encompasses important cities such as East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. It would make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with precise borders to be drawn at the peace table. Expansion of Jewish housing makes those borders ever more complicated.

    A 10-month slowdown in West Bank housing construction by Israel expired in late September, and the Israeli government did not extend it despite international pleas to do so. That contributed to a breakdown in the last round of peace talks between the two sides.

  • Gaza Strip

    Image: Gaza Strip
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    This 25-mile-long by 7-mile-wide strip of land lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea is home to about 1.6 million Palestinians and is under firm control by the militant Hamas movement. Hamas is opposed not only to the peace talks but also to Israel's very existence.

    Gaza, which is also supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state, has been the staging point for rocket attacks on Israel, which has responded with a economically crippling naval blockade of the territory.

    Most of Gaza's residents are from refugee families that fled or were expelled from the land that became Israel in 1948. Of these, most live in impoverished refugee camps to which the United Nations delivers basic services such as health and education.

    Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas seized control of Gaza the following year, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.

    Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers say they will never give Israel what it most wants from a Middle East deal, which is recognition of the Jewish state and a legitimate place in the region. They see their Fatah rivals in the West Bank, who have been open to negotiating with Israel, as appeasers and traitors to the Palestinian cause.

  • Golan Heights

    A fortified and strategically important hilly area on the border of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. The Golan Heights were part of Syria until 1967, when they were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

    Syria has said it wants to secure the return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. A deal with Syria would also involve the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the territory.

  • Egypt

    Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel. Despite Arab world pressure, Cairo has adhered at least to the formal requirements of its peace treaty.

    Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, had played the role of mediator at several very critical junctures in the peace process with the Palestinians and was a key U.S. ally in the tumultuous region. The U.S. underwrites much of Egypt's foreign aid.

    But more recently, Israel's relations with Egypt have deteriorated since Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011. In September, an Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and forced Israeli diplomats to be evacuated.

  • Syria

    Damascus is one of Israel's harshest opponents, and supports a number of armed groups that carry out attacks against Israel. Israel has condemned Syria for its support for the Hamas Islamic government in Gaza.

    Tensions between Syria and Israel rose in 2010 after Israeli President Shimon Perez accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which the U.S. classifies as a foreign terrorist organization. Israel has warned that it will respond to missile attacks from Hezbollah by launching immediate retaliation against Syria itself.

    Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups based in Syria have rejected any move by the Palestinian Authority to resume direct peace talks with Israel.

    Syria has accused Israel of posing a threat to the world with its "huge military nuclear arsenal."

    Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has found itself under international pressure recently, condemned by leaders around the world for a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that began in mid-March 2011.

  • Jordan

    Jordan is considered a very important country in resolving the Mideast conflict due to its proximity to Israel and the occupied territories and its large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Jordan, along with Egypt, are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan is also a strategic ally to the United States in the Middle East.

    Amman has long maintained close security cooperation with Israel but has criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians and fears a spillover of violence if Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians.

    Jordan's King Abdullah was quoted as saying in September 2011 that Jordan and the Palestinians were now in a stronger position than Israel, telling a group of academics that the Arab uprisings had weakened Israel's position.

  • Lebanon

    Lebanon, a small Middle East sovereign state, has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.

    Dozens of private armies grew out of Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and still flourish 20 years later.

    A period of relative stability was shattered in 2006 when an all-out 34-day war between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group with a militant wing the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, and Israel caused significant civilian deaths and heavy damage to Lebanon's civil infrastructure.

    Hezbollah is a central player in Lebanon. Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and it makes decisions that could lead to war without the involvement of the Lebanese state.

    The power balance worries the U.S. and Israel, Hezbollah's sworn enemy.

    U.N. peacekeepers have been charged with monitoring Lebanon's southern border with Israel since 1978. The force was boosted to almost 12,000 troops after Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought in 2006.

Interactive: A history of talks

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