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Barak to ask Netanyahu to prolong freeze
As settlers gear to celebrate end of 10-month long construction suspension, defense minister is expected to tell cabinet extending settlement freeze may be the only way to save peace process. Peace Now plan protest rally, warn freeze's end will seal fate of peace talks.
The settlers are counting down the minutes to the end of the settlement freeze, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who returned from New York overnight, is expected to implore Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the seven-minister cabinet to prolong it.
Barak, who spent his weekend in a series of meetings with US and Palestinian officials in an attempt to avoid an impasse in the peace talks, is likely to ask Netanyahu to order the settlement freeze continue for at least two or three months.
Ynet has learned that the Palestinian have thus far refused all of Barak's proposed compromises on the subject. The demand for a three-month extension has bee echoed by international elements as well.
Senior Jerusalem sources told Ynet Saturday that in light of rocky situation of the peace talks and international pressure "the ball is in Netanyahu's court. He has a decision to make – resume settlement construction or extend the settlement freeze."
Barak meanwhile, is expected to explain to Netanyahu and the cabinet ministers that the peace talks, which have been stalling almost form day one, are unlikely to survive renewed settlement construction; assuring them that if the Palestinian falters during negotiations construction could be resumed at any given time.
Sources familiar with the inner workings of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process said that an extension of the settlement freeze "was the least the PA could ask of the US, Europe and the Quartet."
No solution has been devised at this time and according to the sources, "Sunday is critical" to the process. Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, head of the Israeli negotiation team, remains in the United States and will continue meeting with US and PA officials in an attempt to reach a solution.
Bells and whistles?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has requested that Arab foreign minister convene in Egypt to discuss the peace talks. Abbas is expected to meet with European officials in France, next.
Even if the government decides against Barak's recommendation, the settlers planned actions – according to a senior minister – are unlikely to have any real impact: "They may hold a few ceremonies, but Abbas can handle photos of a couple of bulldozers. That has no real significance.
"No real contraction will begin Sunday. This is all just bells and whistles, with no real affect on the future. The question is what will happen when the Construction and Housing Ministry will ask the Defense Ministry to approve bids for the area… in any case, if we will see real construction in the next few days, than that would be a sign to Abbas, that the settlement freeze has really ended."
Currently, there are 2,000 housing units which have been approved for construction in the West Bank. Nevertheless, is it believed that any de facto construction will be on a much smaller scale, as some of the permits – given prior to the decision on the settlement freeze – may be up for review.
Still, Jerusalem sources said that the true catalyst to any final breakdown in the peace talks would be construction in east Jerusalem.
"Netanyahu will be the one asked to approve any construction in east Jerusalem, not Barak," said a political source. "If he decides to continue the current policy of denying bids, that would mean that the freeze has been extended. East Jerusalem is the clincher here."
Crunch time for government?
Several ceremonies are expected to be held by settlers throughout the West Bank Sunday, marking the end of the 10-month long settlement freeze.
The ceremonies are expected to be led by the heads of the Yesha Council, rightist Knesset members and the heads of local West Bank councils.
"Ten months of an absolutely redundant freeze are ending today," Yesha Council Chairman Danny Dayan said. "We're getting back to normal. Building a Jewish home (here) will no longer be illegal, as that miserable freeze order made it.
"Today also give the Israeli government a chance to prove it can follow through in its word, both to its citizens and the world, to bolster Israel and return to Zionist action."
Sources in the settlement movement said that construction will be resumed gradually, since the sensitive political situation was not lost on them. "We are aware of the pressure the prime minister in under. It is up to us to support him and the government, so they can keep their word, not just about ending the freeze, but also about truly resuming construction," a source said.
Meanwhile, left-wing movement Peace Now is planning what it is calling "an emergency rally" outside Netanyahu's home.
"Resuming West Bank construction goes against any political logic and may very well spell the end of our chance to strike peace with the Palestinians," said Peace Now Director Yariv Oppenheimer.
"Pictures of bulldozers on the ground will only serve Hamas and will cripple Israel's international standing. Anyone familiar with the true situation knows that even know, the two-state solution is virtually impossible to realize."