- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2010

President Obama has abandoned a two-year policy of trying to persuade Israel to stop some settlement construction as a condition for negotiations with the Palestinians, a major recalibration of the administration’s strategy for brokering a deal for a Palestinian state.

U.S. officials began telling reporters about the shift in strategy Tuesday after remarks from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealing that the Obama administration had stopped asking Israel to commit to a three-month settlement construction freeze, citing in part distractions caused by the WikiLeaks crisis.

The strategy shift comes after nearly a month of hard-fought negotiations between Israel and the United States over the settlement moratorium. Palestinians have long complained that the construction is a pre-emptive move by Israel to redraw the boundaries of their prospective state even before talks have begun.

Israel had agreed to a 10-month freeze at the end of 2009 that expired in September, with the idea that the ban on new buildings in the West Bank — but not in Jerusalem — would entice Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to negotiations he broke off during Israels war in Gaza that started at the end of 2008.

Mr. Abbas did return to the bargaining table briefly, but efforts to establish a new process broke down soon afterward.

**FILE** A Palestinian man works at a construction site on Sept. 27 in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yakir, south of the Palestinians town of Nablus. (Associated Press)
**FILE** A Palestinian man works at a construction site on Sept. 27 ... more >

Palestinian officials were still absorbing the news on Tuesday.

“Until we see the details of this statement or this new position, our position is that the Israelis have an obligation to refrain from undertaking any settlement activity,” said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative in Washington. “This remains our position. Evidently, this is the United States‘ position, and we still are waiting to get more details until we can comment further on that.”

A senior Israeli official said the decision to end the settlement freeze was based on a calculation that the Palestinians had expected too much from the Israelis just as a condition of their participation in peace talks.

“First of all, the mutual understanding with the Americans was that we could go on forever with this package, it would still not get the Palestinians back to the negotiations table,” a senior Israeli official told The Washington Times. “They wanted Jerusalem, they wanted more than three months, they wanted a freeze until negotiations are concluded.”

A U.S. official familiar with the diplomacy told The Times: “After consultations with the parties, we determined a moratorium extension will not provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations. In the coming days and weeks, we will engage with both sides on the core substantive issues at stake as well as with Arab states and other international partners to work for our shared goal of a framework agreement” on all the major issues dividing the two sides.

The so-called “permanent status” issues still to be determined include the status of Jerusalem, a city Israel and Palestinians consider their capital; the status of Arab refugees displaced by Israel’s 1948 war for independence; and the final borders of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Abbas in recent days has threatened to dissolve his government — a limited form of self-rule first set up in the mid-1990s — if an agreement for a fully independent state is not met. Palestinian officials have threatened to declare statehood unilaterally in the West Bank if the talks collapse.

Mr. Abbas also has asked other countries to recognize a Palestinian state in its pre-1967 borders, something Argentina and Brazil announced in the past week.

Mr. Areikat said Mr. Abbas‘ threat “may not take the form of physically or literally dissolving the Palestinian Authority.”

“But if this whole process fails and you cannot reach an end to the occupation and you cannot establish a Palestinian state and you cannot give the Palestinians their freedom, the Palestinians are entitled to contemplate other options,” he added.

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