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 6:36:36 PM ET 2010-09-26T22:36:36

Israel's 10-month settlement construction slowdown has expired, and Jewish settlers were preparing to resume their building, possibly endangering newly resumed peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pursue "expedited, honest talks" to achieve a peace deal within a year, in a statement issued on Monday minutes after the formal expiration of a settlement freeze.

"Israel is ready to pursue continuous contacts in the coming days to find a way to continue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," the statement said.

It added that Netanyahu had been in touch with U.S., Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in search of a way to avoid a Palestinian walkout from nascent talks over the settlements issue.

Palestinians have threatened to quit the peace talks, restarted this month by President Barack Obama, if settlement construction resumes.

The Palestinians have asked for an Oct. 4 meeting of an Arab League body to review the situation, possibly giving another week for diplomatic contacts.

Ahead of the expiration, dozens of Jewish settlers released balloons and broke ground on a kindergarten as the last hours of a 10-month construction slowdown ticked away Sunday.

In Revava, a settlement deep in the West Bank, about 2,000 activists released 2,000 balloons in the blue and white of the Israeli flag at sundown. The balloons were meant to symbolize the 2,000 apartments that settlers say are ready to be built immediately.

"Today it's over and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again," settler leader Dani Dayan told the crowd. "We return with new energy and a new determination to populate this land."

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It was unclear what how the official end of the slowdown would affect construction. Netanyahu has already signaled future settlement construction will be kept to a minimum, in contrast to relatively unfettered housing activity of past Israeli governments.

The Palestinians have said they will quit the negotiations if Israel resumes building, though  Abbas said in a published interview Sunday in the pan-Arabic daily al-Hayat that he would not immediately withdraw. He said he would consult with Arab partners first to weigh his options.

Speaking in Paris Sunday, Abbas said, "There is only one choice in front of Israel: either peace or settlements."

The settlers' festivities went ahead despite Netanyahu's call for them to show restraint as the curbs are lifted. Palestinians oppose all settlements built on territories they claim for a future state, and renewed building could endanger negotiations launched early this month by the Obama administration.

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The deadlock over settlements has created the first crisis in the negotiations, and U.S. mediators raced to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians. But a deal was far from certain.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Sunday with Netanyahu and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the representative of the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We keep pushing for the talks to continue," Crowley said.

A U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the U.S. involvement in the peace process said talks among the U.S., Israeli and the Palestinians were taking place Sunday.

"They are talking. Intense efforts are ongoing," the official said.

Netanyahu was huddling with top officials late Sunday in hopes of finding a way out of the impasse.

Abbas faces intense internal pressure from his supporters not to relax his conditions. Also, the rival Islamic Hamas, which controls Gaza, opposes peace talks with Israel in principle.

Israeli police said Palestinian gunmen shot and lightly wounded an Israeli motorist in Hebron, close to where a deadly shooting earlier this month killed four Israeli settlers.

Netanyahu, under pressure from pro-settler hard-liners in his governing coalition, said he would not extend the slowdown on construction he imposed 10 months ago. The curbs, which expire at midnight, prevented new housing starts in the West Bank, though the government allowed thousands of units already under construction to be finished.

A similar, but undeclared, slowdown has also been in place in east Jerusalem, the area of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians.

The deadline had not yet expired when several dozen settlers groundbreaking ceremony for a new kindergarten Sunday in the Kiryat Netafim settlement.

"For 10 months, you have been treated as second-class citizens," Danny Danon, a pro-settler lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud Party, said at the ceremony. "Today, we return to build in all the land of Israel."

In nearby Revava, a settlement of about 130 Orthodox Jewish families in the rocky hills of the northern West Bank, the crowd included young activists, men wearing trademark knit skullcaps favored by religious settlers and foreign supporters from Norway and China.

Netanyahu 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, but in recent weeks they demanded that the measures remain in place.

The Palestinians say Israeli construction in the West Bank cripples plans for a viable Palestinian state. Some 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, scattered among 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem.

In practice, the slowdown brought about only a slight drop of about 10 percent in ongoing construction, but it cut new housing starts by about 50 percent, according to the dovish Israeli group Peace Now. That means the slowdown could have far more impact if it remained in place.

In a television interview, settler leader Dayan acknowledged it would take time for work to really begin.

"Whoever thinks that tomorrow there will be some kind of earthquake and there will be bulldozers wherever you look is wrong. That is not going to happen. It's a process and takes a while," he said.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials over the weekend in hopes of forging a deal on settlement construction.

Before boarding a plane back to Israel, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the BBC late Sunday that chances of success were "50-50." The chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remained in the U.S., leaving a window open for a last-minute agreement.

One of Obama's chief advisers, David Axelrod, told ABC News that efforts were continuing.

"We're very eager to keep these talks going," he said. "We are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to — to get some kind of resolution."

Despite the tensions, there have been signs of compromise. Senior Palestinian officials told The Associated Press last week they were prepared to show "some flexibility."

Abbas ruled out a violent response.

"We won't go back to that again," he said.

_______

Associated Press writers Matti Friedman and Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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