With crisis looming, Israeli Cabinet minister calls for Palestinian compromise on settlements

By Dan Perry, AP
Monday, September 20, 2010

Israeli minister: Palestinians need to compromise

JERUSALEM — With crisis looming for recently restarted Mideast peace talks, Israel’s deputy prime minister on Monday urged the Palestinians to relax their demand that a freeze on new Jewish settlement construction be extended past its planned weekend expiration. Palestinian officials quickly rejected the idea, leaving a deadlock in place.

“In order to succeed in these negotiations both parties need to understand that (neither side) can come out of them with all that they wanted,” said Dan Meridor, describing the dispute as an indicator of Palestinian good faith on broader issues. “The first test for spirit of compromise on both sides is this issue of moratorium. If they say no compromise it’s a bad sign.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other top officials have repeatedly said that if Israel resumes settlement construction in the West Bank they will walk away from the talks, which resumed this month under U.S. aegis. Responding to Meridor’s comments, Palestinian spokesman Husam Zomlot said that position remained unchanged.

“Flexibility and creativity do not apply on illegality,” he told The Associated Press. “If we are unable — and with us the entire world — to persuade Israel to only freeze its illegal settlement expansion, how do we embark on a process that should discuss the dismantling of settlements and the ending of the occupation?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called on the Palestinians not to impose conditions for the talks.

“I want to give these talks a chance to succeed. And I very much hope that President Abbas will have the same attitude,” he told a group of American Jewish leaders. “I expect him to sit down with me even when we disagree, and to work with me through those disagreements in a sincere effort to forge a historic compromise, which I believe is possible.”

Speaking with foreign correspondents, Meridor said that if the current negotiations on a final peace settlement broke down, there was an alternative: a “bottom-up” approach in which the existing Palestinian Authority — ruling a collection of autonomous zones established in the 1990s throughout the West Bank — could be extended in various ways, with “other authorities, jurisdictions and powers.”

The Palestinians oppose anything less than a full settlement, concerned that a partial deal that eases pressure on Israel would perpetuate a situation that falls far short of their expectations — for example, by not including a sharing of Jerusalem, the city both sides want for a capital.

Meridor noted that the Palestinians rejected a far-reaching 2008 offer from Netanyahu’s more dovish predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

On Sunday, Olmert gave his most detailed description yet of that peace offer, saying he proposed a Palestinian state on more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with land swaps to make up for any land Israel annexed. The West Bank and Gaza — now ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement, which opposes the peace talks — were to be linked with a passage through Israeli territory.

Olmert said the Palestinians were to have a capital in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, and the coveted Old City, with its holy sites, was to be governed jointly by Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. He also said Israel would have recognized the suffering of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the fighting around Israel’s creation and would have agreed to repatriate a small number.

Although Netanyahu is widely seen as unlikely to repeat such an offer, he did part ways with his longtime ideology by formally accepting the idea of a Palestinian state soon after taking office in 2009; in November of that year, under intense U.S. pressure, he also halted most settlement construction, saying he would keep the measure in place for 10 months, a period that expires Sunday.

Under the so-called “moratorium,” Israel refrained from new housing starts in the settlements, but several thousand units already being built were allowed to continue. While the measure does not apply to Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to locate their capital, there has been a de facto halt to new construction there as well.

The Palestinians want the moratorium to stay in place and the United States has urged Israel to comply, at least for a period. But members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and key partners in his government oppose this, meaning the premier would likely face coalition trouble if he gave in.

Meridor said he had proposed that Israel resume building in only those parts of the West Bank that might remain in Israeli hands under a future deal — excluding, for example, most settlements deep inside the territory.

In New York, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Israel to extend the moratorium.

“There is a need to extend the moratorium on settlements and, along with everybody else, the EU has called for Israel to do that in order that the talks can continue,” Ashton told reporters after meeting Monday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “And I hope that they will be able to do that very soon.”

On Tuesday, Clinton and Ashcroft will be taking part in a meeting of the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the EU, U.S., U.N. and Russia — on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

In a reflection of the potential for a showdown, right-wing lawmakers announced they would be holding a celebration on Sunday in the West Bank settlement of Revava. Danny Danon, a deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud party, issued a statement saying that “thousands of Likud supporters” would rally at the site and “bulldozers and cement trucks (would) begin work” on a new neighborhood.

When asked, Israeli spokesman Mark Regev had no comment on the Danon initiative.

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