Despite the expiration of Israel's settlement freeze at midnight Sunday, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are still on – thanks in part to intense American pressure.
But for how long is an open question. Within hours of the freeze expiring, bulldozers rumbled to life at the West Bank settlement of Oranit, adding to what many Palestinians believe are the "facts on the ground" that jeopardize good-faith negotiations.
As the moratorium expired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to back away from his threat to abandon talks if the freeze was not extended.
"I call on President Abbas to continue the good and sincere talks that we have just started,'' he said in a statement. "I say to President Abbas: For the future of both our peoples, let us focus on what is really important. Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere, and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year.''
Mr. Abbas agreed not to pull out of talks immediately, pending consultations with Arab and Western leaders. Some hope that Israel will propose a restriction on settlement expansion short of a full freeze that might convince Abbas to stick with the talks.
Settlement building resumes
Abbas may be honoring President Obama's request to stick with the talks, but Israel has been far tougher with the US president. Mr. Obama's pleas for a full settlement expansion freeze were brushed off by Israel.
Construction reportedly resumed on dozens of settler housing units throughout the West Bank on Monday, where Israel has authorized the construction of about 2,000 new housing units for settlers.
New Israeli building could turn Palestinian public opinion further against engagement, leaving Abbas the choice of pleasing the United States, his key financial backer, at the expense of the support of his people.
A spokesman for the settler umbrella group, the Yesha Council, said that the settlers were planning to resume "normal'' building rather than a wave of construction.
Only 15 percent of Palestinians support talks now
Netanyahu's statement on Sunday night didn't formally announce the end of the moratorium or detail what Israeli policy would be regarding building in the future.
Abbas, who is currently monitoring the talks from Paris, will travel to Moscow and then Cairo to discuss the impasse. Palestinian involvement in the negotiations will also be raised next week at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo. The Palestinian Liberation Organization is also expected to convene to discuss the talks.
Abbas's decision not to quit the talks, as he had threatened to do, was criticized by the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Quds, which said in an editorial that his move has given Israel the upper hand. "Abbas wants to stay in the [Palestinian Authority], which has been transformed into a tool in the hands of the Israeli occupation,'' the editorial said.
The decision to remain in the talks will look "very bad'' among the Palestinian public, only 15 percent of whom believe negotiations should continue after the settlement freeze, says Munther Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. But Abbas has staked his political career on achieving peace through negotiations.
"He is just a realistic politician who wants to reach a solution,'' he says. "His neck is on the line, it shows how committed he is about reaching peace. He doesn't have much of a choice.''