End of Israeli Settlement Freeze Threatens Peace Talks

On Sunday Israel's 10 month freeze on settlement construction in the Palestinian territories is scheduled to end. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warns if it is not extended, he will pull out of freshly launched peace negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows no sign of agreeing.

Despite U.S. attempts to conjure an eleventh hour compromise, the issue threatens to destroy the talks and what promised a limited foreign policy success story for the Obama administration.

In the Jewish settlement of Efrat just 20 minutes south of Jerusalem but deep in the West Bank, settlers -- many of them immigrants from the U.S. -- are itching to start building again. Less than a mile away Palestinians from the village of Wadi Nis are determined that must not happen.

Efrat's Mayor Oded Revivi looked from atop a dusty hillside on the outskirts of what he calls his "town" where plans for 32 new homes were blocked by Netanyahu's decision to impose the freeze.

"I think there was never any justification for it to come in the first place and there's definitely no justification for it to carry on," he said, referring to the construction moratorium.

Others in Efrat reject the Palestinians' insistence on a building freeze calling it an unnecessary precondition to negotiations.

Efrat is home to almost 9,000 settlers, many of them religious Jews who see their presence on the West Bank as a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. But economics has played its part as well, with a family home here far cheaper than the equivalent in cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The original plans for Efrat drawn up 28 years ago envisaged a city of 30,000 people. Revivi says the pressure for more homes is intense and admits that plans already exist for 4,000 more. He says once the freeze ends, the building can start.

"In the matter of practicalities it can be done within days, within a day or two we can have the tractors turned on and starting to work," he said.

Unlike many settlements in the West Bank Efrat does not have a security fence. A fact which is the cause of much pride and evidence, settlers claim, of their close and friendly relations with the local Palestinians. Revivi calls them "our neighbors."

Settlers in Efrat Consider Palestinians of Wadi Nis to Be Neighors

On the manmade steps beneath Revivi's frozen construction site are fields of olives, grape vines, and citrus, all farmed by Palestinian villagers without restriction, he claims. The mayor insists the land on which Efrat was built belongs to the state of Israel and that nothing has been taken from the Palestinians.

He doesn't think the Palestinians want peace or will ever recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but when pushed on the issue of giving up land which much of the world sees as occupied, in exchange for genuine peace, he wavers on his near evangelical passion for expansion.

"I don't think I'll be happy, but I am practical and I understand that at certain stages of life you need to make compromises. Life is all about compromises and if we really want to live, then you have to make compromises."

Just 500 yards east of Efrat is the Palestinian village of Wadi Nis. In a small field of beans and newly planted cauliflower farmer Mahmoud Aissa and his wife are supporters of Abbas and his policy of peaceful negotiation.

Aissa and his wife have seven children, four of them at colleges in Jordan, Egypt, and nearby Bethlehem. He sometimes even works as a builder inside Israeli settlements to support his family. But he is adamant there can be no peace talks if the building in Efrat starts again.

"I support the settlement freeze completely," he said. "When they build they take our land, and when I try to build a new home in my village, the Israeli army says I can't. What's there to talk about?"

Aissa is a supporter of the so-called two state solution, but he is not alone among Palestinians in his refusal to recognize Israel's right to the settlements in the occupied territories.

"I am happy to recognize Israel. I've already done it, but Israel isn't here in the West Bank. Israel is somewhere else, on the other side of the line they crossed in 1967," he said referring to Israel's military conquest of the West Bank during the Six Day War.

Palestinians Do Not Consider Israelis in Efrat to Be Neighbors

As to Mayor Revivi's claim of good neighborly relations, Aissa has a very different view.

"These people aren't my neighbors. Unless I have a special permit and a magnetic security card from the Israeli army I can't even get into the settlement to work. They only want us when they need us to build their new homes. There is no normal relationship with them," he said.

On the front line of this latest crisis in the peace process Revivi from Efrat and Aissa from Wadi Nis may be representative of their two communities. Neither are particularly extreme or likely ever to support violence, but they are miles apart on how they see an end to this conflict.

On the immediate issue of the settlement freeze they show little appetite for compromise ahead of Sunday's deadline. For the time being nor do their leaders.

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