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 , Correspondent

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    The settlement of Ofra can be seen spreading into the West Bank, in part to accommodate young couples seeking homes of their own.
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    The rubble of demolished homes juts into the landscape of Amona, an outpost above Ofra where illegal homes were demolished by Israeli forces four years ago – resulting in a violent confrontation with thousands of protesters.
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    Despite a violent confrontation in the outpost of Amona four years ago, settlers continue to perch on the hilltop.
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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.

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

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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.”

From ideology to overflowing classrooms, homes

Palestinians and their supporters see the expansion of Jewish areas in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as making a future Palestinian state unfeasible – turning the once largely Palestinian West Bank into a piece of Swiss cheese, especially around Jerusalem.

The Palestinian proposal is based on a March statement by the Quartet, which is composed of the US, and Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union. In addition to calling for a complete settlement freeze in the West Bank, the statement also asked Israel to refrain from home demolitions in East Jerusalem, noting that the international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of that half of the city.

In the settlements, the adamant stand against a freeze stems from ideological and biblical arguments, such as Bohrer’s, to more practical considerations.

Hagit Sela, a school principal in Ofra, says her elementary school classes are taught in temporary mobile home containers until the freeze ends so the community can press on with plans for a permanent school. Acutely aware of friends and neighbors whose grown children are struggling to find homes as they start their own families, she added a floor in her house to create rental units for young couples – and says many people she knows did the same.

As a flock of grandchildren darts around her patio, which overlooks a distant Palestinian village, Mrs. Sela says she’s heard buzz about building plans that are about to be unfrozen. That leads her to believe the freeze is not likely to be extended next month.

Michel Finkelstein, a gregarious American who moved to Beit El in 1992, hopes so.

Pinning progress in peace talks on reducing settlements “is like saying all American problems are from illegal immigration,” she says, nevertheless tempering her expectations of the prime minister. “So far Bibi has been strong. He’s stood up. But we’ve learned our lesson [with Sharon].”

Braced for violent evacuations?

Israel’s evacuation of some 8,000 settlers from Gush Katif in southern Gaza five years ago is seen by some, like Ms. Finkelstein, as a warning of what may come if Netanyahu is pushed harder on West Bank settlements.

Residents such as Sela say they are law-abiding citizens and will obey, however reluctantly, any government order to leave their homes.

But the demolished remains of several homes on the nearby hilltop outpost of Amona, violently evacuated despite 3,000 protesters four years ago, is a reminder that the West Bank settlements are vulnerable as well.

Netanyahu “is all the time being pressured,” says Bohrer, echoing a common refrain heard during a recent stroll through both Ofra and Beit El. He doesn’t see himself and his fellow settlers as caught under the thumb of either American or Israeli leaders, saying that they will rely solely on biblical arguments – not security or political arguments or incentives – to defend their settlements.

“We’re not in a vise,” he says. “We’re in God’s hands.”

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

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