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Palestinians wait on decision to quit peace talks
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Palestinian president said Monday he would wait at least a week before deciding whether to quit Mideast peace talks, giving U.S. mediators precious time to broker a compromise after Israel refused to extend its 10-month moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction.
President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly has threatened to withdraw from the newly launched negotiations if Israel resumes building in the settlements. But with the stakes so high, Mr. Abbas said during a visit to Paris that he would not make any hasty decisions. He said he would consult with the Palestinian leadership before discussing the matter with representatives of the 22-member Arab League next Monday.
"We will not have any quick reactions," he said at a news conference standing beside French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "After this chain of meetings, we will be able to put out a position that clarifies the Palestinian and Arab opinion on this issue now that Israel has refused to freeze settlements."
A senior Palestinian official said the Palestine Liberation Organization's 18-member decision-making body would meet Wednesday or Thursday to determine how to proceed. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal Palestinian deliberations.
The construction restrictions that the Israeli government ordered expired at midnight Sunday with no sign Israel was heeding U.S. and Palestinian pressure to keep the curbs in place.
The end of restrictions threw the peace talks, which only restarted three weeks ago, into doubt. But the Americans said they were still working with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to find a formula that would keep the negotiations alive.
Mr. Abbas on Monday urged Israel to extend the settlement slowdown for three or four more months to allow for a discussion of "fundamental issues" in negotiations.
In Cairo, an Arab League official said Arab foreign ministers were expected to endorse whatever position Mr. Abbas took. He spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision had been made.
Immediately after the restrictions expired at midnight, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to Mr. Abbas to keep negotiating.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom appealed to the Palestinians to keep talking. "I think if they continue to negotiate with us, we can finally reach an agreement," he said, expressing regret that the talks did not resume earlier in the 10-month settlement slowdown period.
In Washington, the State Department said envoy George Mitchell would return to the region on Tuesday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders — presumably part of the effort to find a compromise formula over the settlement issue.
Jewish settlers in the West Bank jubilantly marked the end of the construction curbs on Sunday, sending thousands of blue and white balloons — the colors of the Israeli flag — into the air and breaking ground on a new kindergarten. They vowed to build thousands of new homes.
On Monday, there was only a smattering of construction in different settlements across the West Bank.
In Adam, north of Jerusalem, contractors surveyed building plans for new housing as a bulldozer cleared away earth. Another patch of land was prepared by a lone bulldozer in Karmei Tzur, in the southern West Bank, while four construction vehicles worked on leveling a rock-and-shrub-covered plot in Ariel, a large settlement in the northern West Bank, to make the way for 100 homes planned in the area.
Settler leaders acknowledged construction activity would be minimal in the coming months, in part because banks and developers are reluctant to commit to new projects out of fear that building will be stopped again
Palestinians regard settlements as a major obstacle to peace because the construction is on land they claim for part of their future state. Some 300,000 Israeli settlers live in communities scattered across the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem, the area of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.
Israeli defense officials said Defense Minister Ehud Barak has floated a proposal under which any future construction — even projects with all the necessary permits — would need his personal approval.
Under this scenario, Mr. Netanyahu in effect would be able to leave the building restrictions in place without openly declaring this. But it was not clear whether Mr. Netanyahu favors the idea. The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has been taken.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his hard-line Cabinet to agree to the slowdown in November in a bid to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after a breakdown of nearly two years.
The Palestinians initially dismissed the gesture because it did not halt construction on thousands of settlement apartments already under way. They also objected because it didn't apply officially to east Jerusalem — though there has been a de facto construction freeze there for months as well.
After U.S.-mediated peace talks were launched earlier this month in Washington, the Palestinians demanded Israel maintain the curbs.
Mr. Netanyahu — a settlement champion who just last year grudgingly endorsed the notion of a Palestinian state — earlier faced heavy pressure within his pro-settler governing coalition to resume construction.
Any negotiations would be complicated by the rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank, which Mr. Abbas controls, and in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Islamic Hamas militants who overran the territory in June 2007.
On Monday, Hamas' top leader, Khaled Mashaal, said from his base in Syria that only minor issues remained for a full reconciliation with Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement.
Multiple efforts to reconcile the two sides have failed so far. Reconciliation likely would require major concessions, including the integration of rival security forces and new elections.
Hamas opposes peace talks with Israel and has threatened to spoil the latest round with violence.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Ben Hubbard in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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