Israeli moratorium key to talks

Netanyahu pressed by both sides

GRIEF: A religious Israeli man reacts during the funeral Wednesday of Yitzhak and Talia Imes, who were killed Tuesday night in a shooting attack near Hebron, outside Jerusalem's Old City. (Associated Press)GRIEF: A religious Israeli man reacts during the funeral Wednesday of Yitzhak and Talia Imes, who were killed Tuesday night in a shooting attack near Hebron, outside Jerusalem’s Old City. (Associated Press)
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The chairman of Israel’s largest settler organization in the disputed territory of the West Bank on Wednesday predicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will collapse if he renews a moratorium on construction inside the settlements as part of the first direct Arab-Israeli peace talks since 2008.

Daniel Dayan’s stance and the slayings of four Jewish settlers this week highlighted the threats surrounding the high-stakes talks the Obama administration has made a top foreign policy priority. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to leave Thursday’s direct negotiations if Mr. Netanyahu does not renew the West Bank building freeze set to expire Sept. 26.

“We have succeeded in creating political leverage that will not allow Netanyahu to extend the moratorium,” Mr. Dayan told The Washington Times hours before President Obama hosted a dinner with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

After meeting separately with Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas, Mr. Obama condemned extremist efforts to derail peace efforts, vowing that violence will not undermine the pursuit of an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a constant source of grievance and unrest in the Muslim world.

“There are going to be extremists and rejectionists who, rather than seeking peace, are going to be seeking destruction,” Mr. Obama said. “The United States is going to be unwavering in its support of Israel’s security. And we are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist attacks. And so the message should go out to Hamas and everyone else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes that this is not going to stop us.”

The militant Hamas movement, which rejects Israel’s right to exist and opposes peace talks, claimed responsibility for the killings of four Israelis near the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday.

Under a so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the West Bank is supposed to make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with precise borders to be drawn at the peace table. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the past have endorsed the concept of land swaps, whereby the final borders of Israel would include settlement blocs around the city of Jerusalem where the bulk of Israel’s 300,000 West Bank settlers live.

Mr. Obama has asked Mr. Netanyahu to refrain from new construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank for the duration of peace talks. Last November, Mr. Netanyahu, under pressure from Mr. Obama, agreed to freeze new construction in the West Bank, but did not agree in principle to such a freeze in East Jerusalem.

American officials are hopeful they can at least get the two sides this week to agree to a second round of talks, that will start Thursday at the State Department. These talks could be followed by another meeting among Mr. Obama, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly near the end of the month in New York. The stated goal is to reach a final peace settlement within one year.

Beyond the settlements, Israel and the Palestinians face numerous hurdles in resolving other contentious issues, notably the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

When George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader and the president’s special envoy for Mideast peace, was asked about the settlement freeze on Tuesday, he said, “Our position on settlements is well known, and it remains unchanged. We’ve always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations.”

P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said, “The issues of settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security are the kinds of issues we’ve been talking about in the lead-up to these meetings. They’ll be discussed at these meetings, and we will be negotiating these issues as we try to reach a final agreement.”

While Mr. Dayan is not a member of Israel’s Knesset or parliament, his 300,000-member Yesha Council is very influential within three parties that make up Israel’s current ruling coalition: Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. The Yesha Council nearly scuttled the first settlement construction freeze last November.

When the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, held a referendum within the Likud Party over whether to remove settlements from Gaza in 2005, the council succeeded in defeating the measure, but ultimately failed to stop Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.

“The last elections back in 2009 brought a Knesset and coalition that is sympathetic to understanding how vital Judea and Samaria are to Israel,” Mr. Dayan said. Judea and Samaria are the names in the Bible for the southern and northern areas of the West Bank of the Jordan River.

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