Netanyahu urges talks as Israel settlement freeze ends

A countdown marked the end of Israel's settlement freeze

Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the Palestinians to continue peace talks despite an end to Israel's ban on West Bank settlement-building.

In a statement moments after the end of the 10-month partial freeze, he asked Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to continue seeking a "historic" deal.

A spokesman for Mr Abbas said he would consult other Arab leaders on 4 October before making a decision.

In the West Bank on Monday, bulldozers began work on a handful of settlements.

However, construction work was expected to be slow because of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Israeli media said bulldozers had started levelling ground for 50 homes in the settlement of Ariel in the northern West Bank.

'Waste of time'

Similar activity was also reported in the settlements of Adam and Oranit.

The Palestinian leader, who was due to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday, made no immediate comment on the end of the freeze.

However, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told reporters that there would be no official answer until he had met Arab leaders in Cairo next week.

"During that day President Abbas will consult with the Arab governments and will come back to the Palestinian leadership to take the right decision and the right answer, with all what we have from the Americans and the Israelis," he said.

On Sunday, Mr Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, warned that the peace talks renewed earlier this month would be a "waste of time" unless the ban continued.

'Continuous contacts'

Start Quote

If Israel does not continue the settlement freeze, the peace process will be a waste of time”

End Quote Mahmoud Abbas Palestinian leader

As the moratorium came to an end at midnight local time on Sunday (2200 GMT). the Israeli prime minister called on the Palestinians to continue peace talks, which recently resumed after a 20-month pause and have the strong backing of US President Barack Obama.

"Israel is ready to pursue continuous contacts in the coming days to find a way to continue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," Mr Netanyahu said in his statement.

It was possible "to achieve a historic framework accord within a year", Mr Netanyahu said.

However, his statement did not directly mention the issue of the settlement freeze.

He had earlier urged settlers "to display restraint and responsibility".

Some Jewish settlers celebrated the end of the construction ban.

At the settlement of Revava, near the Palestinian town of Deir Itsia, they released balloons and broke ground for a new nursery school before the moratorium expired.

Earlier in the evening, a pregnant Israeli woman and her husband were slightly wounded in a gun attack in the West Bank.

Israeli police said Palestinian gunmen opened fire on their car south of the city of Hebron. The woman later gave birth in hospital.

Compromise deal

Obstacles to peace

Palestinian women queue to cross a checkpoint in Bethlehem, West Bank (3 Sept 2010)

Meanwhile, the US renewed calls for Israel to maintain the construction freeze, saying its position on the issue remained unchanged and the US state department was staying "in close touch" with all parties.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Mr Netanyahu and also to Tony Blair, the representative of the Middle East Quartet (the EU, Russia, the UN and US), as the end of the construction freeze neared, a spokesman said.

Israel says the settlements are no bar to continuing direct talks on key issues, and US negotiators have been working intensively to secure a deal.

On Saturday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told the BBC he would attempt to convince government colleagues of a compromise deal, and said the chances of a deal on the issue were "50/50".

The BBC's Wyre Davies in Jerusalem says Mahmoud Abbas is in a difficult position, with Israel offering few concessions, at least publicly.

If he continues negotiations, he will face accusations from his own side that the Palestinians will have backed down in the face of Israeli intransigence, our correspondent says.

It is estimated that about 2,000 housing units in the West Bank already have approval and settler leaders say they plan to resume construction as soon as possible.

The partial moratorium on new construction was agreed by Israel in November 2009 under pressure from Washington.

It banned construction in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the Middle East war of 1967, but never applied to settlements in East Jerusalem.

US President Barack Obama has urged Israel to extend the moratorium, saying it "made a difference on the ground, and improved the atmosphere for talks".

Nearly half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are held to be illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

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