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Israeli-Palestinian peace talks look less likely as settlers fret over freeze

As the US steps up pressure for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is insisting on a extension of an Israeli settlement freeze set to expire next month. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that isn't likely, citing public opposition.

By Staff writer, and Joshua MitnickCorrespondent / August 12, 2010

The settlement of Ofra can be seen spreading into the West Bank, in part to accommodate young couples seeking homes of their own.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

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Ofra and Beit El, West Bank

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are coming under growing US pressure to enter direct peace talks. But despite international mediation this week, they have been unable to close the gap between what their respective constituents will accept. A key sticking point is the 10-month freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, set to expire next month.

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Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo today, insists on a total settlement freeze. On Tuesday, Mr. Abbas presented his proposal for talks to US envoy George Mitchell. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the proposal, arguing that the Israeli public would not accept the preconditions it outlined.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

Indeed, in the more established Israeli settlements in the West Bank, everyone from young yeshiva students to grandmothers who have lived in these contested areas for a quarter of a century are dreading a possible extension of a settlement freeze that largely halted building in their expanding communities. At first, they saw the temporary freeze as a necessary political move, but now they fear Mr. Netanyahu will betray them as his predecessor Ariel Sharon did by evacuating Gaza’s Gush Katif settlement bloc in 2005.

“Netanyahu is very experienced, and he fell into a trap,” says Yehudah Bohrer, a founder of Beit El, a West Bank settlement. Mr. Bohrer voted for Netanyahu, but is now having doubts about him. “It’s not clear what [Netanyahu] will do… He will try to weasel out of ending the freeze…. [But] he has created a ‘freeze momentum’ that is hard to undo.”

To Dr. Bohrer, a rabbi who was born in Germany in the 1940s, even a temporary freeze sends a message that Israel might give away what the settlers call Judea and Samaria, the biblical lands that Jews believe were promised by God to the Hebrew people but today are largely populated by Palestinians. “The freeze means you are negotiable,” he says, calling it a “terrible mistake.”

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