With freeze over, West Bank settlements ready to dive into construction
Israel, Palestinian Authority working to reach compromise on issue of settlement construction, following expiration of 10-month building freeze on Sunday night.
Barring last-minute delays, construction will begin on Monday morning on a few dozen housing units whose owners have waited patiently for an end to the 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank.
Construction is ready to begin on just over 2,000 units, but because not all the future homeowners have obtained a mortgage, hired a contractor and gone through the complicated paperwork, work on 500 to 600 homes is expected to begin in the coming months.
Construction is expected to begin on Tuesday at a number of sites including Shavei Shomron, Adam, Oranit, Sha'arei Tikva, Yakir, Revava, Kokhav Hashahar, Kedumim and Karmei Tzur. A cornerstone is to be laid for a new neighborhood in the southern West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai, with construction set to start soon.
After the Sukkot holiday, the Yesha Council of settlements and local West Bank councils are expected to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into approving new construction.
The number of housing units put up in the West Bank during the Netanyahu government is the lowest under any prime minister since the first Rabin government.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Jewish leaders in Paris yesterday he believed a solution would be found to the crisis over the end of the freeze. A French source at the meeting said Abbas told his interlocutors that both sides knew that compromise was necessary.
Meanwhile, talks continued in New York between senior U.S. officials, chief Israeli negotiator Isaac Molho and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat.
According to the source at the Paris meeting, the Palestinians would be prepared to give up their demand for a full freeze if Netanyahu declared he is willing to discuss the issue of the 1967 borders and a land swap. Abbas told the French-Jewish leaders that the moment Netanyahu stipulates where he sees the border with Palestine, much of the issue of construction in the settlements will be solved.
Netanyahu spent Sunday at his home in Caesarea and spoke by phone a number of times with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who returned in the afternoon from the United States. Netanyahu also spoke with Molho, who updated him on his talks with the Americans and Palestinians.
A senior Israeli official familiar with the talks said that if the current negotiations ended successfully, the compromise would be announced publicly. This a Palestinian demand, so they can present an achievement that would allow them to stay at the negotiating table.
It is still unclear whether the inner cabinet will have to approve a compromise. "The solution being discussed is somewhere between the construction policy of the Olmert government and the freeze," the Israeli official said, indicating limits on construction.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu told ministers on Sunday not to give interviews on the renewing of construction. His staff asked settler leaders and MKs who are against the freeze to keep a low profile.
Netanyahu also released a statement calling on settlers and politicians to show "restraint and responsibility," as they did during the freeze.
Sources in Netanyahu's office said they were concerned that photographs of bulldozers and cement mixers working to put up thousands of new homes in the settlements would only increase international pressure on Israel to renew the moratorium.
Netanyahu's efforts were only partially successful. The ministers from Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and Labor cooperated, except for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who gave an interview to the BBC before returning to Israel from New York. He said he believed there was a 50-50 chance of renewing the freeze, and that the chance of reaching a peace agreement was much higher.
In the settlements, festivities to mark the end of the moratorium were not called off, but no cabinet ministers and only a few MKs were on hand: Danny Danon, Ayoob Kara and Tzipi Hotovely from Likud, Nissim Zeev (Shas) and Michael Ben Ari (National Union).
"This is what I wanted to see - blue and white in every corner," said Kara, speaking to around 2,500 people at the annual World Likud convention at Revava. "I came to be with you all. Residents here respected the freeze; the most important thing is to continue the peace process. The result of the freeze was zero. It gave us nothing and it gave the Palestinian Authority nothing. As a wounded Israel Defense Forces veteran I think Israel's security depends on your settling here."
Quoting a Talmudic saying, he said, "If [a man] comes to slay you, slay him first."
Zeev said: "This day unites the entire people of Israel, not only World Likud. The residents of Judea and Samaria are native to Israel through a historical link. That's the issue that should lead us today regarding our rights in the face of the Quartet and the United Nations. We were born here and this is the land of our fathers forever. In the name of God we will succeed."
Hotovely told the crowd she was "proud to be a member of a party that was elected to preserve our right to exist in this country."
Hotovely said the end of the freeze would test the government's ability to keep a promise and the future of the West Bank settlements.
When the speeches were over, Danon counted backwards, symbolizing the approach of the end of the freeze, and balloons were released.
Key Arab League summit
Meanwhile, Abbas said that at the Arab League's October 4 summit, its committee monitoring the Arab peace initiative would meet at the request of the PA. It would decide whether direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians should continue after the end of the building freeze.
After Abbas returns from Paris, he will call a meeting of the Fatah Central Committee and the PLO Executive Committee to decide on the future of direct talks. Fatah, the PLO and the Arab League are expected to decide to end the talks if the moratorium is not renewed.
However, Abbas told the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat he would not announce a suspension of the talks on Monday, but would decide with the other Arab countries. Abbas is essentially giving another week to continue negotiating on the freeze.
Fatah Central Committee member Mohammed Dahlan said Fatah opposed continuing direct talks if construction resumed. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second largest group in the PLO, released a statement saying it would not take part in the organization's Executive Committee meeting if direct talks and construction in the territories continued.