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As Israel settlement freeze ends, one-year peace plan begins

Israel's 10-month settlement freeze ends today, and the clock starts ticking on a Sept. 2011 deadline for a comprehensive peace agreement.

By Correspondent / September 26, 2010

Palestinian laborers work on a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yakir, south of Nablus, Sunday. Israel's 10-month settlement freeze ended Sunday.

Nir Elias/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

If negotiators can overcome today’s deadline to resolve a dispute on Israeli settlement expansion and keep peace talks alive, the date of September 2011 will begin to loom as the target for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

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The one-year goal to reach a comprehensive peace agreement was set before the start of direct talks earlier this month in order to calm Palestinian worries that the negotiations would continue ad infinitum. But given the past failure of Israeli and Palesitnian negotiators to meet joint deadlines, is there any reason to believe that this time will be different? Might another missed negotiating target do more harm than good?

"Given the fact that the Middle East is a grave yard for timelines and deadlines, the latest ones are understandably being dismissed,’’ said Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a non-profit government think tank.

The target is for a broad "framework" agreement dealing with the core issues of the conflict: control over Jerusalem, borders, the status of Palestinian refugees and water.

But skeptics say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are too far apart on these issues to close the gaps, and that a deadline inflates expectations and could spur unrest if not met.

A year could be enough time

Others point out that a year is plenty of time to reach an agreement on disputes which have already been worked through (albeit unsuccessfully so far) by negotiators and academics. The outlines of an agreement have already come into focus.

"Since the parties have been through these issues before,’’ added Mr. Lasensky, "these are eminently attainable goals within the timelines that have been set, assuming there is the political will.’’

The demand for a deadline has recently come from the Palestinians. In contrast, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that a year isn't enough time to close the gaps, and that disappointment is liable to spark a new Palestinian uprising.

The Palestinians however, see a lack of a clear time frame as a sign that Israel doesn't actually plan to finish the talks.

"The Palestinians have a bad experience in the negotiations. The Israelis favor negotiations for a long time, and raise minor topics that aren't the main points,'' said Nashat Aqtash, communications professor at Bir Zeit University outside of Ramallah. "The Israelis are negotiating for the sake of negotiating and not for the sake of reach of an agreement. They just want to gain more time to establish settlements, to confront the international community with facts on the ground.''

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