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

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

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."

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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.

In recent days, diplomats have been looking for a compromise position – a sort of "non-freeze freeze" that would allow Palestinian negotiators to save face while not unduly alarming Israel's settler movement.

Abbas's support slipping among Palestinians

The process so far has laid bare Abbas's sliding standing within the Palestinian elite. Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, has staunchly opposed the talks and promised to continue carrying out what it terms "resistance" to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. A boat carrying Jewish peace activists was stopped by Israel today from breaching the blockade of Gaza, which the Israeli military says is necessary to prevent arms shipments to Hamas.

But more secular-minded Palestinians are also growing impatient with Abbas, who is frequently described in Ramallah as more concerned with his standing in the US than among his own people.

In late August, when a few dozen left-leaning Palestinian politicians tried to hold a conference opposing a return to talks at the Protestant Club in Ramallah, dozens of young men pushed their way into the hall and forcibly broke up the meeting. Organizers alleged there were plain-clothes members of the Palestinian Authority security forces among them, though that's a charge Abbas later denied.

Settlements vs. right of return

While there's still a reasonable chance that the talks will be saved – particularly since President Obama and Abbas have already staked so much of their own prestige on the process – the chances of a breakthrough within Obama's goal of a year that could lead to a durable peace deal and a Palestinian state appear slim.

That's partially because the fight over a settlement freeze is a proxy for the larger issue of what's called the Palestinian right of return. There are roughly 1 million Palestinian refugees living outside of historic Palestine, and many Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum continue to hold out hope that they'll be allowed to return to an eventual Palestinian state.

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An influx of Palestinians, which would tip the demographic balance sharply, is deeply alarming to most Israelis. Ongoing settlement expansion is seen by most Palestinians as an effort by Israel to create "facts on the ground" that, in effect, are expanding Jewish sovereignty and reducing the size of an eventual independent Palestine, making the question of external refugees thornier still.

"Without requiring Palestinian refugees to return, negotiations are worthless," the popular Fatah political activist Marwan Barghouti, a rival of Abbas' currently serving consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison, told Al-Hayyat newspaper. "If the US continues to favor Israel without pressuring it to end the occupation and return to 1967 borders, peace efforts will fail."

The reference to "1967 borders" would include East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank, both of which were seized by Israel in 1967's Six-Day War. Mainstream political opinion in Israel is that East Jerusalem is now part of the Jewish state's "eternal capital" and is not up for negotiation. Most Israeli politicians also expect that any final settlement will allow for carving out territory from the West Bank, allowing Israel to retain most of the large settlement blocs.

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