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Expiring Housing Moratorium Looms Over Middle East Peace Process

Construction in the Jewish settlement of Modi’In Ilit in the West Bank. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The latest direct peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ended this week with no agreement on one of the largest issues, a partial moratorium on Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank.

The moratorium is set to expire at the end of the month and has become a key issue of negotiations. Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks if Netanyahu does not extend the freeze.

An estimated 300,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, according to Reuters. An additional 200,000 settlers live in East Jerusalem, which is included in the settlement freeze.

On Thursday, Abbas again stressed the importance of resolving the settlement issue, saying, “We all know that there is no alternative to peace other than negotiations. Therefore, there is no choice for us but to continue in these efforts.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was conducting the talks in the Middle East, told Israel’s Channel 10 television station Thursday that it would be “extremely useful” for Israel to extend the building hiatus — even for a limited time.

But Netanyahu, who has not indicated that he will renew the moratorium, encouraged Abbas to stay engaged. “The end of the settlement freeze must not be allowed to foil the talks,” Netanyahu told Abbas. “We have taken on an ambitious mission of reaching agreement within a year and we must focus on that.”

Controversy surrounds the settlements. “According to Israeli government statistics released last week, only five new building projects were begun in settlements in the first half of this year, compared with 673 in the first half of 2009,” The Associated Press reported.

But Peace Now, a group that seeks to promote peace through education of the Israeli public and concerned citizens worldwide, contends that construction of 450 housing units has begun since November, about 300 of which violate the terms of the freeze, and at least 2,066 housing units are ready for construction in the settlements as soon as the freeze ends, the group says.

A U.N. committee on Palestinian rights has weighed in as well, saying, “Israel’s temporary suspension of settlement activity falls short of its obligations under the road map — the internationally endorsed plan for a two-state solution to the conflict — requiring it to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said his Yisrael Beitenu party would block any attempt to extend the moratorium, reports the Agence France-Presse.

The partial ban is a polarizing issue in Israeli politics. Netanyahu faces political pressure from his coalition. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, a prominent member of Netanyahu’s party, said extending the slowdown would pose a “huge danger” to the coalition. “Within the coalition, there is a huge majority against it,” Shalom said.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has encouraged keeping the freeze in ideologically driven settlements, but removing it from land that would stay in Israel under a peace deal.

“I have suggested that we build in areas that will remain part of Israel in the future, and not in those areas that won’t be part of Israel,” he said, quoted The Guardian. “We have to build [in the settlements] wisely so as not to harm the negotiations with the Palestinians.”

NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro explored the issue of settlements in a report that aired on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly:

More resources on the settlements:

– The Foundation for Middle East Peace keeps records of the settlement construction in the West Bank.

– The United Nations offers this map of the settlements.

– This Wall Street Journal map gives the years the settlements were established.

On Friday’s NewsHour, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reports on the progress made at the latest round of Mideast peace talks.

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