Abbas urges settlement freeze extension

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LISA MULLINS: The United States is looking for ways to move forward with direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. That's the word from a State Department spokesman today. The spokesman also said the US is disappointed with Israel's decision to let a partial moratorium on the construction of settlements to expire. Now that freeze is no longer in effect and it's not clear what happens next, with either the settlements or the peace talks. The World's Matthew Bell has more from Jerusalem.

MATTHEW BELL: After weeks of threatening to walk out of peace talks if West Bank settlement construction resumed, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said today that he's not going to make a hasty decision about whether or not to quit the negotiations. Abbas called on Israel to extend the settlement freeze for another 3 to 4 months. And he extended his own deadline by a few days, saying he would not announce his final decision on the talks until the Arab League meets next week in Cairo. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers in the West Bank are celebrating the end of the construction moratorium. A cement mixer filled in the cornerstone for a new building yesterday afternoon at the settlement of Kiryat Netafim, deep in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called on Jewish settlers and the politicians who support them to show some restraint as the moratorium ended yesterday. But the mood here was anything but reserved. Israeli parliamentarian, Danny Danon apologized to the settlers for being treated like second-class citizens. He said Jewish settlers living on land that they know as Judea and Samaria, the same territory Palestinians want for a future independent state, are the real pioneers of Israel.

DANNY DANON: For ten months, Jews could not build in this land. We discriminated our brother and sister. Today, we finish with that. And we tell to the prime minister, be strong. We know there is a lot of pressure coming from the White House. Be strong, the people of Israel are behind you. You committed to build and now we are doing it here in Judea and Samaria.

BELL: For all the fanfare however, it's far from clear that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are on the cusp of a massive building boom. Netanyahu's government might continue to restrict construction activities as a gesture to the Palestinians, even if there's no formal announcement to extend the building freeze. It's up to Israel's defense ministry, for example, to sign off on new settlement building projects. Longtime settler leader Benny Katzover says the peace process, and the pressure from Washington to give the Palestinians a state of their own, is putting Jewish settlements in the West Bank under threat.


BENNY KATZOVER: We are definitely more apprehensive and we're definitely worried. But we really can't understand why Obama would like another Iranian state smack in the middle of Israel, when he can hardly deal with Iran as is.

BELL: That's a reference to the Iranian-supported Islamist group Hamas, which has controlled the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip since 2007. For its part, the Israeli government has so far refused to formally extend the building freeze. And it's not providing details of how it might be willing to compromise on the issue of settlements. But spokesman Mark Regev says the peace process needs to continue.

MARK REGEV: Prime Minister Netanyahu called upon President Abbas to continue with these talks, because ultimately only through ongoing serious, direct talks can we build a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

BELL: But if Abbas does decide to walk away from the talks next week, the Palestinians are saying that Israel will be to blame. Mustafa Barghouthi is a member of the Palestinian parliament.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI: Today, Netanyahu's government, by refusing to stop settlement activities and continuing it at full speed and scaled has decided to assassinate and kill and destroy the peace process. And to kill and destroy the very last opportunity of peace based on two state solution.

BELL: Only a few weeks after direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority finally got started, US officials will be working overtime to prevent things from falling apart over the settlements issue. At least now, they have a few extra days to do it. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.