Israeli settlers have hauled construction equipment into a Jewish settlement deep inside the West Bank, officials said Saturday, preparing to break ground on a new housing project even as the U.S. raced to prevent peace talks from collapsing with the end of an Israeli moratorium on settlement building.
The end of the Israeli construction restrictions late Sunday presents the first major crisis in the new round of Mideast peace talks, launched earlier this month at the White House by President Barack Obama.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who imposed the settlement slowdown 10 months ago as a peace gesture, says he will not extend the restrictions, despite public calls from Obama to do so. But the Palestinians, who oppose all Israeli construction on territories they claim for a future state, say they quit the talks if building resumes.
"Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly Saturday.
He said the Palestinians and the wider Middle East are continuously pushed into "the corner of violence and conflict" as a result of Israel's "mentality of expansion and domination."
Abbas left the U.S. late Saturday for meetings in France.
"The American efforts are continuing and will continue in the coming hours," Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh told The Associated Press from the plane before takeoff. "These are serious and important efforts, but they still haven't reached an Israeli commitment to stop settlement activities."
President Abbas has called for a meeting of key Arab foreign ministers to convene in Egypt in the next few days to discuss developments, Abu Rdeneh said.
With the clock ticking, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to broker a last-minute compromise before Sunday's midnight deadline in hopes of averting a breakdown in talks.
Abbas and top Israeli officials, including the defense minister and Netanyahu's chief negotiator, were all in the U.S. working on the issue. Clinton has urged both sides not to take provocative actions that could derail the negotiations.
Israel's military chief last week warned that violence could erupt if peace talks break down a concern that was underscored by rioting in east Jerusalem following the shooting death of a Palestinian man Wednesday.
Violence broke out again Saturday, as Israeli riot troops clashed with Palestinian protesters demonstrating against a settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron. An Associated Press photographer was briefly detained and roughed up by security forces and suffered a broken rib. The army claimed the photographer had refused calls to allow troops to operate.
As negotiations proceed in the U.S., there have been signs that both sides are willing to compromise.
Abbas, wary of being blamed for the talk's collapse, told a group of American Jewish leaders last week that he would not necessarily walk away from the negotiations even if settlement construction resumes. And senior Palestinian officials told The Associated Press they are willing to show "some flexibility."
They said one proposal being considered was that Israel would resume building new projects only in some areas, probably in communities close to the Israeli border and likely to be retained by Israel in a future deal as part of a land swap.
But the officials added that at least two other scenarios were also under discussion, including a three-month extension of the moratorium or a conditional extension in which the Palestinians would agree to some "exceptions."
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has signaled that future construction will be far less than the thousands of new homes currently in the pipeline.
An Israeli official familiar with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's negotiations in the U.S. said Israel had floated the idea of requiring all future construction to be personally approved by Barak. This scenario would essentially leave the current restrictions in place without formally declaring so.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, home to 300,000 Jewish settlers, as part of a future state, and say that by expanding settlements, Israel is imposing facts on the ground that make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable country.
Netanyahu declared the West Bank slowdown, which put a halt to most new housing starts, last November with the hope of coaxing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians initially rejected the gesture because it contained loopholes that allowed construction to proceed on thousands of settlement apartments.
With peace talks now under way, the Palestinians say it is essential that Israel leave the restrictions in place. Abbas has repeatedly said he will be forced to walk away from the negotiations if construction resumes.
At the same time, Netanyahu faces heavy pressure within his pro-settler governing coalition to resume construction. Hardline elements in the coalition could try to bring down the government if Netanyahu extends the settlement slowdown.
"There is no reason why we should agree" to extend the restrictions, Limor Livnat, a Cabinet minister in Netanyahu's Likud Party, told Israel Radio on Saturday.
She said some 2,000 homes have received all the necessary approval to be built, and that construction should resume immediately. "Building simply must continue," she said.
In reality, construction will likely be far below maximum levels. But in a symbolic move, Danny Danon, a pro-settler Likud lawmaker, said Saturday that settlers have already moved bulldozers, cement mixers and other equipment into the Revava settlement in the northern West Bank.
He said activists would lay the cornerstone for a new neighborhood on Sunday, the last day of the slowdown, and planned additional construction Monday after the restrictions formally end.
Nawaf Souf, the Palestinian deputy governor in the area, said settlers have moved construction equipment and 20 to 30 mobile homes into Revava in recent days. The homes could be seen Saturday in a crescent shape on what appeared to be freshly dug earth, while bulldozers stood idle in a nearby olive grove.
"The moment that the freeze is lifted, they will do the work openly," Danon said.