REVAVA, West Bank — Thousands of Jewish settlers celebrated the expiration Sunday of a 10-month freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank, defying efforts by Israeli and Palestinian officials to reach a compromise on the issue and keep peace negotiations alive.
Palestinian and American officials said it likely would take some days to find a solution to the settlement moratorium. Palestinians have said they'd abandon the talks if Israel ends its moratorium on the construction of settlements on land in the West Bank that Palestinians say is earmarked for a future independent state.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, however, heads a largely right wing, pro-settlement coalition that's threatened to dissolve the parliament if he continues any form of settlement freeze. Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas launched direct peace talks earlier this month at the urging of the White House.
"I think that the chance of achieving a mutually-agreed understanding about (the) moratorium is 50-50. I think that the chances of having a peace process is much higher," Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, told the BBC. "We cannot afford . . . to let this process, with historic potential impact on the lives of many millions, on the stability of the whole region, to be derailed by the fact that Israel doesn't have a way to stop this building totally."
Officials close to President Barack Obama said Sunday that they hope the talks could find a way forward.
"We are going to urge and urge, and push throughout this day to get some kind of resolution," Obama advisor David Axelrod told ABC News. "These talks themselves are absolutely crucial — we're at a critical juncture in that region."
Dozens of settlers Sunday cheered a cement truck that poured a foundation for a new building in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim. Settler leaders invited members of the press to film the symbolic step, which they said marked the beginning of "celebrations" to mark the end of the freeze.
Just after five in the evening, thousands of people gathered in the nearby settlement of Revava to hold a ceremony honoring their communities. The ceremony included a countdown to sunset, which Jews believe marks the end of the day, and therefore of the government-imposed moratorium.
"Today it's over, and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again," settler leader Dani Dayan told the crowd. "We return with new energy and a new determination to populate this land."
Lawmaker Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, organized the rally in Revava Sunday, and said it was time for the government to "remember its love" for the settler movement.
Netanyahu has asked ministers and members of his government to "show restraint and responsibility today and in the future" by not creating a fanfare over the expiration of the freeze.
Officials in Netanyahu's office said he continued meeting with his advisers late into Sunday night to examine compromises that would impose a partial freeze in the larger settlement blocs and limit the expansion of smaller outposts.
Senior Palestinian officials, speaking anonymously, have said they they'd likely consider some sort of compromise, though officially they've said that they'd await the results of the current round of discussions and convene the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab League to issue a joint response to any proposed compromise.
Abbas signaled his flexibility in an interview Sunday with the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, saying he'd immediately withdraw from peace talks if construction resumed.
White House official David Axelrod, told ABC that efforts to find a position that would allow both sides to continue the peace talks are continuing.
"We're very eager to keep these talks going," he said. "We are going to urge and urge and push throughout this day to — to get some kind of resolution."
Throughout the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, however, protests and ceremonies were being prepared to signal public — and unambiguous — support for the settlements.
As settlers released 2,000 blue and white balloons into the air at Revava — symbolizing the 2,000 building permits that were held up because of the freeze — residents promised to "flood" Israel's Housing Ministry with thousands of new building requests.
"The freeze is over," shouted Knesset member Danon to rounds of applause from onlookers. He said he couldn't predict, however, what his party would do.
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(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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