- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s foreign minister said Thursday it is up to the Palestinians to decide whether to resume Mideast peace talks now that Israel has announced a settlement freeze.

Avigdor Lieberman told Israel’s Army Radio that the “ball is in the Palestinian court.”

His comments came a day after Israel proposed a 10-month halt in West Bank settlement construction, which the Palestinians swiftly rejected because it did not include east Jerusalem.

The Obama administration has been urging the sides to resume peace talks and said the Israeli move could help them do so. The Palestinians have refused to talk until all settlement construction ceases.

Lieberman, a settler himself, said Israel has gone as far as it could in its gestures toward Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“What we could have contributed, we did,” Lieberman said. “The Palestinians will make their considerations based on internal considerations that don’t need to concern us.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel’s move was insignificant because current West Bank construction is not being stopped. He said Wednesday’s announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was aimed more toward appeasing American pressure than truly trying to reconcile with Palestinians.

“At the end of the day Netanyahu needs to make peace with us, the Palestinians, he doesn’t need to make peace with Americans,” Erekat told Army Radio. “If that is what he wants, that is his business. The last I know, Washington is 6,000 miles from Jerusalem, while Jericho is 67.”

Netanyahu also faces fierce opposition at home from pro-settler groups and even within his own right-wing coalition.

Dani Dayan, leader of the West Bank settlers’ council, accused Netanyahu of capitulating to American demands and getting nothing in return for his concessions.

He pledged to continue building as much as possible.

“We feel that he is going in a very slippery slope in which he is betraying his own beliefs,” he told The Associated Press. “We will do everything in our capacity to keep building, to keep developing our communities, and I am optimistic that we will prevail.”

About 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements.

Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it, a step no nation has recognized. Trying to cement its claim, Israel built new quarters around east Jerusalem, where 180,000 Israelis now live. Palestinians denounce them as settlements, but Israel considers them neighborhoods.

The militant Hamas group, which controls the Gaza Strip, also condemned the partial Israeli settlement freeze.

“It’s a cosmetic step,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told a local Gaza Web site. “It aims to restart pointless negotiations … without any real cost.”

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