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Palestinians warn Israel peace talks could be quickly derailed

Palestinian leaders have been warning that renewed peace talks with Israel, scheduled for next week, could be derailed after an Israeli settlement freeze expires. But behind the threats is a more nuanced and compromising position.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent / August 25, 2010

A Palestinian boy plays near his house in front of a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem Tuesday. Israeli and Palestinian leaders sparred on Monday over Jewish settlements and Israeli calls for security guarantees before the scheduled peace talks in Washington next week.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

For more than a year, the Palestinians insisted on an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition to entering direct talks with Israel. But recently they dropped their demand, paving the way for the first direct peace talks with the Israelis since early 2009.

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Or did they?

While Palestinian leaders say they’ll show up for the talks, slated to start next week in Washington, they also insist they'll withdraw if Israel doesn’t extend a settlement expansion moratorium that expires on Sept. 26. Since no one expects substantial progress in a 60-year-old conflict to be made in a little under a month, and restarting talks only to have them break down immediately would probably do more harm than good, it's reasonable to wonder what's going on here.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

It appears that the Palestinians have made a tactical switch to shift the claims of being the "obstructionist" party from themselves to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The burden will now be on Mr. Netanyahu to extend the freeze in order to keep talks that US President Barack Obama has staked considerable prestige on inching forward.

But the Israeli prime minister is in a bind because he promised right wing allies that he would renew building, so a formal declaration of a new or extended freeze seems unlikely. That does not mean, however, that a surge of new settlement construction is coming at the end of September. Palestinian and Israeli analysts say that Israel could informally pressure settler groups to restrain new construction, or perhaps use the permitting process to do so, in effect meeting the Palestinians half-way.

"It's not about settlements, it’s about what type of good will the sides are [bringing] to the talks,’’ says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "It’s about what is your goal in entering negotiations: is it to achieve peace, to stall, to please international powers, or win public relations points?’’

While Palestinian officials like lead negotiator Saeb Erekat insist that all new construction is unacceptable, some degree of construction is likely to be tolerated. After all, the Israeli group Peace Now said there were 481 housing starts in the West Bank over the first eight months of the "freeze," though that was far fewer than the 3,500 new units that settler groups say they were adding before the freeze.

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