Image: Palestinians walk in front of wall painting showing captive Israeli army soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit.
Hatem Moussa  /  AP
Palestinians walk in front of a wall painting showing captive Israeli army soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit, in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday.
By
updated 10/16/2010 6:22:06 PM ET 2010-10-16T22:22:06

The Palestinians will study alternatives to peace talks with Israel in the coming days, a top PLO official said Saturday, after Israel gave the green light to build 238 new houses for Jews on war-won land Palestinians seek for their state.

However, it's unlikely the Palestinians will take any dramatic steps before Nov. 2 midterm elections in the U.S., since Arab leaders have already promised the Obama administration more time — until a few days after the vote — to try to relaunch negotiations. Saturday's statements seemed intended mainly as a new warning that Washington's peace efforts are in trouble.

The negotiations, launched by the U.S. in early September, quickly broke down over Israel's refusal to extend a limited curb on construction in West Bank settlements, deemed illegal by the international community.

The Palestinians want to establish their state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War — and say there is no point negotiating as long as expanding settlements gobble up more of that land.

Nearly half a million Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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Israel's 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank expired Sept. 26. Israel never formally declared building restrictions in east Jerusalem, though an informal freeze was believed to have been in effect for several months. However, Israel announced on Thursday plans to build 238 more homes for Jews in east Jerusalem, sought by the Palestinians as a future capital.

The Palestinians sharply criticized the move. Both the U.S. and Russia said in separate statements that they were disappointed by Israel's announcement and that the new construction plans run counter to efforts to rescue the negotiations.

Israeli officials said the new construction was confined to neighborhoods that would remain in Israeli hands in any proposed peace plan and in no way contradicted Israel's goal of reaching peace with the Palestinians.

Interactive: A history of talks (on this page)

On Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his Fatah movement at his headquarters in the West Bank.

The Palestinians plan to study their options in coming days, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the PLO.

"These political options include going to the U.N. and to the Security Council," he said.

Palestinian officials have said in the past they might ask the Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, in case negotiations with Israel break down. The U.S. could quickly derail such a move with a veto, and it appears unlikely the Palestinians would proceed down that path without U.S. backing. For now, Washington opposes unilateral steps.

Mohammed Ishtayeh, a senior Fatah official, said the Palestinians will have prepared options by the time they consult with the Arab League in three weeks.

"We and the Arabs will choose which of these options can be implemented," he said. "It's not just a matter of going here or there, without having an outcome on the ground, because some of these options need American consent or facilitation."

Abed Rabbo, meanwhile, rejected Netanyahu's recent proposal that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish national homeland, in exchange for Israel reimposing the curb on settlements. Abed Rabbo noted that the PLO and Israel formally recognized each other in 1993. "There is no need to reopen the issue (of recognition)," he said.

In other developments Saturday, a German mediator involved in the past in trying to broker a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas secretly visited Hamas-ruled Gaza, said Osama Mazeini, a senior official in the Islamic militant group.

Hamas is trying to swap an Israeli soldier it captured in 2006 for hundreds of supporters held by Israel. Negotiations have been deadlocked for months, and the mediator's recent visit suggests efforts are being made to renew the talks.

Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former U.N. envoy and Algerian Foreign Minister, said he and a visiting delegation to Gaza discussed the matter with Hamas leaders.

"They told us that there are some contacts but they did not give us any details on this subject," he said.

——

Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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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