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Settlement Moratorium’s Expiration Stirs Uncertainty in Mideast Peace Talks

September 27, 2010 at 4:30 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The future of Middle East peace talks was up in the air again today, as negotiators waited to see if settlement construction would begin again on the West Bank, and Palestinians would walk away from the table.

For the first time today in nearly a year, there was nothing to stop Jewish settlers from building homes in the West Bank. But, for the most part, all remained quiet.

At Karmei Tzur, a small settlement in the southern West Bank, a long bulldozer plowed fresh earth, but that construction had been approved before the building moratorium went into effect last November.

On Saturday, at the United Nations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had lobbied for Israel to extend the freeze, said Israel has a choice to make between settlements and peace. Still, during a trip to Paris today he said, with the stakes so high, he will delay any decision about whether the missed deadline is a deal-breaker.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, Palestinian Authority President (through translator): We will not have now any quick reactions. We will not say yes or no, we want or we don’t want. We need to study all the results and consequences, a real deep study with the Palestinian leaders, but also with the Arab countries.

We have decided with the Arab countries during my meeting with foreign ministers in New York that the Arab follow-up committee will hold a meeting on October 4.

GWEN IFILL: Even as settlers celebrated the moratorium’s expiration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advised restraint. Today, his spokesman said the peace process should go forward.

MARK REGEV, Israeli Government Spokesperson: 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.

GWEN IFILL: Netanyahu faced heavy pressure from his governing coalition to resume construction of settlements. But others in the government’s more moderate wing, like Israeli President Shimon Peres, urged caution.

SHIMON PERES, Israeli President (through translator): Our fate has been and remains hinged on the peace process. We cannot put the things that we have achieved at risk. We are in a period of some uncertainty, a sort of passing crisis. I hope that, whatever happens, we cannot stop efforts to achieve a complete peace.

GWEN IFILL: Direct talks restarted in Washington with Abbas and Netanyahu at the White House just over three weeks ago. A State Department official said today the U.S. was disappointed that Israel allowed the building moratorium to expire.

U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell heads back to the region tomorrow, with stops in Israel and Ramallah. Both sides have accepted an invitation to resume talks in Paris next month.