Mideast talks on brink as settlers rebuild
World leaders have scrambled to save the Middle East peace talks from collapse after Israel refused to extend a ban on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.
US officials made frantic attempts to broker a deal between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators but failed to make a breakthrough by the time the freeze, imposed 10 months ago, expired at midnight on Saturday.
With Palestinian leaders long insisting that they would leave the peace talks if the moratorium was not extended, the future of the negotiations appeared to be in jeopardy less than a month after they were launched in Washington.
David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's top policy adviser, said that the White House had urged for a resolution, throughout Saturday, ahead of the deadline.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, appealed to the settlers to display "restraint and responsibility" once the moratorium expired.
Addressing the UN General Assembly on Saturday, Mahmoud Abbas, his Palestinian counterpart, called on Israel to "choose between peace and the continuation of settlements".
As the Israeli and Palestinian delegations returned home, their chief negotiators remained in America at the request of Mr Obama, whose credibility in the Middle East is at stake if the talks collapse.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said that there was still a "50/50" chance of "achieving a mutually agreed understanding about the moratorium".
Mr Abbas has also spoken of his desire to keep the talks alive, while pledging that the Palestinians will not resort to violence if they collapse.
But as both sides tried to find a way out of the impasse, the settlers at the heart of the row raised a fresh challenge by symbolically resuming construction on the hilltops of the West Bank.
A bulldozer rumbled through the settlement of Kiryat Netafim, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, as the cornerstone of a new house was laid - the first of 2,000 the settlers hope to build across the West Bank in the coming months.
Among the settlers there was a mood of outward jubilation, tempered by the fear that Mr Netanyahu could still rein in their ambitions.
"Ten months of an absolutely redundant freeze are ending today," Danny Dayan, the head of the settler movement, said. "We're getting back to normal." (© Daily Telegraph, London)