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Israeli moratorium key to talks

Netanyahu pressed by both sides

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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.

"All the parties except for the Labor Party are all in favor of resuming construction. We have to make sure the majority in the Knesset is heard and felt and the majority exerts its capability to navigate," he added.

Pressure from Mr. Dayan's council is real for Mr. Netanyahu, who has said on some occasions that he will not renew the construction freeze. On Tuesday, Hamas took responsibility for the killing of four settlers in the West Bank, including a pregnant woman. A poll conducted by Israel's Channel 10 after the attacks found that two-thirds of Israelis favored resuming construction in the Palestinian territories. A poll from July, however, conducted by the Evens Program for Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute found only 52 percent of the Israeli public favored renewing construction.

A senior Israeli official told The Times that the decision to impose the construction moratorium, which allowed for construction that technically started before November, was scheduled to end later this month.

"Our position is the issue of the settlements should be discussed in the talks themselves. Ultimately, we all understand the status of the settlements will be determined in the peace talks and the final peace agreement," he said.

Some Israeli politicians have already suggested that Mr. Netanyahu return to Israel in the aftermath of the traumatic shootings.

The senior Israeli official said, "We are not looking for reasons for this process to fail; we want this to succeed. We hope the Palestinians would do the same. If we were looking for reasons not to negotiate, we have many."

Aaron David Miller, who has been a senior Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state, said it was "hard to imagine you are going to get an exact replica of the first moratorium."

He added that "Netanyahu is open to the charge that he is paying for negotiations with the Palestinians. Then you have to work backwards and figure out what he can do and not bring down his government, alienate the Obama administration and piss off the Palestinians in that order."

At the same time Mr. Miller, who is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Mr. Dayan's Yesha Council could also overplay its hand.

"They don't want to push too hard, because if they do, they could get a government that could get a new ruling coalition much less favorable to their interests."

"Danny Dayan's statement clearly reflects wishful thinking, but it does not mean that he and other people in his camp do not have the power to bring down the government," said Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a U.S. group that monitors Israeli settlement activity.

Mr. Nir said one possible compromise would be for Mr. Netanyahu to decline to formally renew the moratorium, but for the defense minister, Ehud Barak, whose Labor Party favors the settlement construction freeze, to issue far fewer construction permits for the West Bank.

"What is possible and maybe even likely to happen is that while the moratorium will not be officially extended, wholesale planning and construction in settlements will not resume because the Defense Ministry is responsible for issuing these permits, and Defense Minister Barak has both the interest and ability to issue these permits very sparingly," Mr. Nir said.

Mr. Dayan, however, said that a "de facto" construction freeze would be opposed by his council as well.

"Even if the moratorium is not formally extended but the tenders for construction are not signed that will mean a de facto extension of the moratorium and that would be totally unacceptable for us," he said.

Mr. Dayan added, "It would be inconceivable that less units would be built during Netanyahu than under [the last Israeli prime minister] Ehud Olmert, and if that is the case, we will use the political leverage we have within the Israeli political system in order to override that policy."

This story was based in part on wire service reports.

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