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Mahmoud Abbas gives Israel a week to halt settlement expansion. Does he mean it this time?

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas backed down again on his threat to quit peace talks over Israeli settlement expansion, this time pending consultation with the Arab League Oct. 4.

By Staff writer / September 28, 2010

A laborer works on a housing project in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kokhav Hashahar September 28. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday put off a threatened decision to quit peace talks with Israel, leaving more time for diplomacy to save negotiations from collapse over Israel's settlement building.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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About now, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is looking like the boy who cried wolf.

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Last year, Mr. Abbas said there would be no negotiations with Israel unless all Israeli settlement construction was stopped. In March, he said even so-called "indirect" talks with Israel could not go forward unless an Israeli plan to build more housing for Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem was scrapped.

Early this month, Abbas warned that if a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank was allowed to lapse then just-started negotiations would be called off. And on Sunday, he told members of France's Jewish community in Paris that continuing talks without an immediate halt to settlement expansion would be a "waste of time."

In each case, Abbas and the Palestinians blinked first, returning to the talks they insisted they would avoid. That was largely due to heavy pressure from the US, a key financial backer of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Today, Abbas and Palestinian negotiators insisted that Israel has roughly a week to call off settlement expansion – which rumbled back to life in the West Bank over the weekend – or they'll walk away from talks.

"If the building continues, we will have to put a stop to [the talks]," Abbas told Europe 1 radio, according to Agence France-Presse. "Netanyahu must know that peace is more important than settlements."

Given the recent history, it was almost as if he was saying, "This time I really, really mean it."

Does he? As President Obama's Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell scrambles in Jerusalem today to save a process that had produced more rancor than understanding so far, that's very much an open question.

Jordan's King Abdullah warns of 'another war'

Some think he'll stick to his guns this time. King Abdullah of Jordan told Jon Stewart of The Daily Show last week that if a freeze isn't returned to by the end of the month, a sharp uptick in violence in the Palestinian territories will be likely.

"If the issue of settlements is still on the table on the 30th, then everybody walks away," he said. "If we fail on the 30th, expect another war by the
end of the year."

Prompted by Stewart if he really meant "another" war, Abdullah responded: "War by the end of the year, and more wars that I foresee in the region in the coming years... Unless we solve this problem, not only do we as the Arabs and Israelis pay the price for it, but your loved ones in harm's way will continue to be in the trenches with the rest of us."

Abdullah, like many regional leaders and political analysts, believes that the ongoing conflict between the staunch US ally Israel and the Palestinians is undercutting America's prestige in the Middle East.

A non-freeze freeze?

The ball is now in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's court, whose political coalition could fall apart if he takes a harder line on settlements. Mr. Mitchell has far less leverage on the Israeli side of the equation. Mr. Netanyahu rules a state of his own and has much more support in the US Congress and Senate than Abbas.

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