Israeli settlements still hurdle for peace talks

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President Obama hosts a Middle East peace summit this week. The goal is to reach a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in one year. But there are serious doubts about whether these peace talks will even last a month. One of the many difficult issues is the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Matthew Bell reports.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. A co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. President Obama hosts a Middle East peace summit this week. The administration wants Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement within a year. But there was a hitch today even before the summit opened. Four Israelis were shot and killed near a West Bank settlement. The militant group Hamas praised the attack as a natural reaction to the Israeli occupation. The US called it a deliberate attempt to derail the negotiations. But Israeli settlements in the West Bank have long been a sticking point in peace talks as The World's Matthew Bell reports from Jerusalem.

MATTHEW BELL: The issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has dogged Middle East negotiators for decades. The Palestinians want this territory for their future state. Israel's prime minister agreed to a 10-month partial freeze on settlement building that ends on September 26th. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas says, if construction starts up again after that, he walks away from the negotiating table. At the same time, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he will not extend the building freeze.

SHAUL GOLDSTEIN: Doesn't matter what happens. If I get a call from the Prime Minister, doesn't matter. First, I'm signing the plans, so people can build after the end of the freeze.

BELL: Shaul Goldstein welcomes me into his office this morning for an interview. But first thing's first. The mayor of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc says he's got to sign a big stack of building plans. Goldstein sips his morning coffee and flips through blue prints for construction projects that will get under way after September 26th.

GOLDSTEIN: If you're planning a house in the entire world, it's the same. This is the plan, this is the neighborhood?

BELL: But building houses here is far from the same as everywhere else. The US, the international community and even the Israeli government does not consider the West Bank to be part of the State of Israel. President Obama has called settlement expansion illegitimate. His secretary of state said settlements are an obstacle to peace. Mayor Goldstein takes me on a tour of a nearby settlement in his minivan. And I ask him, why is it imperative for people here to keep expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

GOLDSTEIN: What you call the West Bank and we call Judea and Samaria is the cradle of Judaism. If this is not mine, nothing is mine. We are inviting the Palestinians to stay and to have full rights, but they have to recognize Jews should build in Israel and this is Israel.

BELL: But even Israel doesn't say this is Israel.

GOLDSTEIN: You didn't ask Israel. You asked me.

BELL: We climb out of the car and Goldstein points to a row of three dozen new apartment buildings under construction. He says the freeze can't end too soon for the young people and immigrant families looking for homes. And he says new construction is good for thousands of Palestinian laborers who work here. It's good for Israel's security, he says. He also wants to remind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he visited here recently and proclaimed, Gush Etzion forever.

GOLDSTEIN: He said that loud and clear, Gush Etzion forever. And he said that in the future we'll continue to build after the end of the freeze.

BELL: In fact, Netanyahu is under no small amount of pressure from pro-settler groups and some leading members of his own Likud party. They want him to go to Washington and say no to extending the settlement freeze. No to the old formula of land for peace. And no to a Palestinian state. Naftali Bennet is the prime minister's former chief of staff. He's now with the Yesha Council. It's an umbrella group that represents the 300,000 plus Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. Bennet says Netanyahu got elected by telling Israelis that he opposed the two-state solution.

NAFTALI BENNET: That was his platform and then came along President Obama, twisted his arm until he said, okay, Palestinian state, which is against our self-interest. If he goes down that road, he no longer represents the Israeli people and we'll do everything in our power to replace him with someone who does.

BELL: Bennet says the idea that Israel can give up Jewish settlements in the West Bank and get peace and security in return has proved to be foolish.

BENNET: We're not insane. We tried it once in Lebanon. We tried it second time in Gaza. We're not going to try it again this time in the heart of Israel. Forget about that.

BELL: The Israeli public is deeply skeptical about this new round of peace talks. But political scientist Reuven Hazan says a majority of Israelis do support the two-state solution, even if it means pulling Jewish settlers out of the West Bank. Just not right now.

REUVEN HAZAN: They're willing to uproot settlements. The problem is they don't have anyone who can deliver a normal, calm, let's not even say peace, but a lack of belligerency from the other side in exchange for this.

BELL: Hazan says Netanyahu will have to reach some kind of compromise in Washington over settlement building if he wants the talks to go anywhere. But if the prime minister has something in mind, he's been keeping very quiet about it in public. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.