Renewed Israeli construction in settlements after the end of the construction freeze in late September would bring the newly-launched direct negotiations to a grinding halt, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has warned in letters sent to U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the High Representative of the European Union on Foreign Policy, Catherine Ashton. "It's impossible to conduct negotiations alongside settlement construction," wrote Abbas.
The future of the construction freeze in West Bank settlements is expected to become the first significant obstacle facing the Israeli and American governments in the direct talks. The freeze is due to end on September 26, and Prime Minister Netanyahu told Likud ministers on Sunday that the cabinet resolution on ending the freeze on the date will be followed to the letter.
However, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor continued last week to promote his initiative to renew construction only in the large settlement blocs set to be annexed to Israel under any foreseeable peace agreement. The construction freeze will continue to be fully applied in isolated settlements such as Itzhar and Itamar. Meridor enjoys the support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but fellow members of the forum of seven, ministers Begin, Yishai and apparently Lieberman, are opposed.
The U.S. administration had not yet made an official comment on the Meridor proposal, but senior Israeli officials in contact with senior Washington officials told Haaretz that the Americans did not rule it out. The Americans stressed to their Israeli counterparts that President Obama's position is mainly dependent on Palestinian readiness to accept construction in the large settlement blocs.
Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Sunday that although the American administration did not commit to the Palestinian Authority that the construction freeze would be renewed after the September deadline, the Palestinians expected the freeze to continue. Erekat said that the Americans implied to the PA that if direct negotiations would restart, it would be easier to convince Israel to extend the construction freeze.
Netanyahu said at Sunday's cabinet meeting that achieving peace with the Palestinians was "difficult, but ... " He said he will arrive at the negotiating table with good will to reach a peace agreement. "I know there's a lot of skepticism after the 17 years that elapsed since the Oslo Accords," Netanyahu said," and the existence of such skepticism is understandable."
The prime minister told the cabinet that he intends to "surprise all the critics and skeptics," but stressed he needed a Palestinian partner to succeed.
"If we find we have a real partner on the Palestinian side, an honest and earnest partner in negotiations that will need both sides to make the necessary steps - not just the Israeli side but also the Palestinian side - if we find we have a partner like that, we can soon reach a historic peace agreement between the two peoples," the prime minister said.
At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu stressed that any peace agreement will necessitate sustainable and realistic security arrangements, a Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, a resolution to the refugee problem within the borders of the Palestinian state and a Palestinian agreement to announce an end to the conflict.
Next week, after a short holiday in northern Israel, Netanyahu is expected to leave for the Washington summit in which the direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority will be launched.
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