Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he had hoped the upcoming expiration of Israel's settlement freeze would not prompt the Palestinians to walk out of recently relaunched peace talks, adding that peace talks had taken place for 17 years without West Bank building disrupting them in any way.
In November, Netanyahu declared a 10-month moratorium on Israeli construction in West Bank settlements in efforts to jumpstart the peace process, though talks were only relaunched toward the end of the time frame, on September 2. The freeze is set to expire on September 26.
Earlier Tuesday, the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators called on Israel to extend its settlement moratorium, saying the freeze has had a positive impact as the two sides seek a peace deal within the next year.
"The Quartet noted that the commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation," said the statement, due to be issued by the Quartet, which comprises the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
When asked regarding the possible consequences of Israel's continued construction in the West Bank, Netanyahu told reporters on Tuesday that he hoped "[Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas would continue the talks and not walk out."
"Peace talks have been going on for 17 years, even when there was construction in the West Bank," The PM said, adding that Israel had made "a 10-month-long gesture by freezing construction."
"Unfortunately, the Palestinians entered negotiations nine month later," Netanyahu said.
Referring to the possibility, reported on Monday, that he had agreed to hold ferendum on a possible peace deal with the Palestinians, the premier said that he had told Likud MK Ofir Akunis, who proposed the move, that it went "without saying that the issue would be decided by the people, in one way or another."
"I'm weighing all the possibilities," Netanyahu said.
When asked if he had offered the United States a deal in which Washington would release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for extending the settlement freeze, the PM said that there was "no need for special circumstances in order to raise the Pollard issue."
"I discussed the subject with [U.S.] President Obama during our very first meeting, as well as in several other meetings with American officials, regardless of [peace talks]."
"Since the start of my position I set a clear policy which holds that with every firing of a Qassam rocket there will be a fast and immediate response," Netanyahu said after being briefed on the state of security in Ashkelon and its neighboring communities.
"We can see that due to this policy there has been a significant decrease in the number of rockets fired toward the area," he added.
"I strongly suggest to terror organizations and Hamas not to test our determination to respond with severity to any act of aggression against Ashkelon and the south," Netanyahu said.
On Monday, the French news agency AFP quoted Palestinian President Abbas as saying "the negotiations will continue as long as the settlement remains frozen," but stipulated "I am not prepared to negotiate an agreement for a single day more."
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