- Associated Press - Sunday, September 5, 2010

RAMALLAH, West Bank | Just days after Mideast peace talks began in Washington, the first major crisis already is looming: Israel hinted Sunday it will ease restrictions on building in West Bank settlements, while the Palestinian president warned he’ll quit the talks if Israel resumes construction.

Israel’s 10-month-old slowdown on new building in settlements expires Sept. 26, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a tough choice.

If he extends the freeze, he risks breaking up his hard-line coalition. If he lifts the restrictions, he risks getting blamed for derailing negotiations and disrupting President Obama’s Mideast peace efforts soon after they began.

The Israeli prime minister struck an unusually conciliatory tone during the Washington peace summit and again on Sunday, when he briefed his Cabinet about his 2½-hour meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the U.S. capital.

Once a fervent opponent of Palestinian statehood, Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday he wants negotiations to succeed after 17 years of failed attempts. He also called for creative solutions to complicated problems, although he did not elaborate.

Mr. Netanyahu also said he hopes to build a relationship of trust with Mr. Abbas.

“I believe that what is needed now to move the process forward is not a proliferation of negotiating teams, but decisions by leaders,” he said. “In order to reach practical solutions, we will need to think about new solutions to old problems. I believe that this is possible.”

Under U.S. pressure, Israel imposed restrictions on most West Bank settlement construction in November in a bid to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Mr. Netanyahu has not yet said what he will do when the slowdown expires.

The Palestinians view a continued curb on settlement construction — even if it falls short of a complete freeze — as the true test of Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions.

The Palestinians say the more than 100 settlements already dotting the West Bank are gobbling up land where they hope to build their independent state.

Mr. Abbas told a group of Palestine Liberation Organization activists in Libya late Saturday that anything but an extension of the current slowdown is unacceptable.

“If the [Israeli] government extends the Israeli decision to stop the settlements, we will continue the negotiations, and if it doesn’t extend, we will leave these negotiations,” Mr. Abbas said.

The Palestinian leader said he informed Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu of his position during meetings last week.

Negotiations between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, broke off in December 2008, and Mr. Abbas only agreed under intense U.S. pressure to restart talks with Mr. Netanyahu.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. They are willing to accept some border adjustments that would enable Israel to keep some of the largest settlements, but fear Mr. Netanyahu is unwilling to cede large amounts of the territory they seek.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak signaled Sunday it’s unlikely the freeze will be extended in its current form. “I don’t think it will remain, and we’re looking for a way to ensure that this will not harm the continuation of the talks,” Mr. Barak told Israel Army Radio.

Mr. Barak did not elaborate, but said Israel would try to persuade Mr. Abbas to accept some new construction.

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