JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers across the West Bank have vowed to begin construction in more than 60 locations, posing a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he returned home from Thursday's first round of direct peace talks in Washington.
Settler spokesman Naftali Bennet said construction would begin immediately in settlements across the West Bank, a direct violation of the freeze that Netanyahu imposed in November. That freeze expires on Sept. 26, but Bennet said settlers had been moved to action after to a spate of shootings at settler vehicles this week.
For three consecutive nights this week, assailants organized by the Palestinian Hamas movement shot at cars carrying settlers. They killed four settlers Tuesday night, and wounded two more late Wednesday night. Two Israelis who were shot at Thursday night said the guns of the shooters jammed, and they were able to escape unharmed.
Police said that in all the attacks, a car overtook that of the settlers and opened fire — spraying the vehicles with bullets.
Bennet said the attacks were an example of what awaits Israel if it fails to support the settler movement.
The United States was trying to force Israel into a "phony peace" Bennet said.
"Once they understand Israelis are here to stay and only growing stronger day by day, they will give up," Bennet said.
In Pinati, a Jerusalem coffee shop made famous by its blue-collar clientele, settlements were the focus of heated debates Friday, over piles of salads and steaming meat.
Danny Pinach, a 43-year-old who lives in Pisgat Ze'ev said that Netanyahu had "wiggle room to make compromises," but had to "also make reparations towards the settlers."
"He made a lot of promises to that constituency during the last elections. They have a lot of power in his government. He has to give them an inch, or they'll take his whole foot," Pinach said. His home in Pisgat Ze'ev is considered a settlement under international law, since it lies over the 1967 cease-fire line.
Like many Israelis, however, Pinach considers the neighborhood a suburb of Jerusalem, and doesn't think it will ever be "frozen" or returned to the Palestinians.
"I'm not some kid on a hill in the West Bank. I'm a businessman, and a moderate Israeli. Still, I wouldn't want the prime minister telling me I couldn't build a garage in my backyard," Pinach said.
His friend, Shmulik Raz, laughed at Pinach's response.
"Of course, all the settlers think like you. They all think they are normal people who should build. That's why Netanyahu's dug himself into a hole."
Though Raz lives in the Israeli city of Meveseret Zion — to the West of Jerusalem and within the 1967 cease-fire line — he said he feels sympathy for the settlers in the wake of the attack, and would understand Netanyahu seeking a compromise on their behalf.
"It's a no-win situation. Either he makes the settlers mad or the Americans. Either one could bring down his government," Pinach said.
The settlers' political backers include many lawmakers within Netanyahu's own Likud party. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom of Likud has said that extending the freeze on all construction in the settlements, which Palestinians are demanding as a condition for continuing the talks, could lead to the dissolution of Netanyahu's coalition and force early elections.
Settlers plan demonstrations throughout the week to try to convince Netanyahu to allow building in the settlements, in defiance of demands of the Americans and Palestinians.
The current freeze in construction allowed for projects such as kindergartens and community centers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas complained that it was a freeze in name alone.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the settlement issue "the largest hurdle" in the upcoming talks. Abbas has openly stated that if construction in the settlements resumes on Sept. 26, he'd call off all talks with Israel.
However, the U.S. has pressed Abbas to take a more flexible position that would allow Netanyahu to compromise on the settlement issue. Polls conducted in Israel on the eve of the talks suggested that Israelis were torn over how the prime minister should handle the settlement issue.
Thirty-nine percent of Israelis said they favored construction in all the settlements, while 25 percent said that construction should only resume in the larger settlement blocks that Israel intends to keep in a final peace deal.
The polls are largely inconclusive for Netanyahu, according to aides in his office, who said the prime minister was exploring a number of options as he returned to Jerusalem.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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