Middle East peace talks appear to be in crisis following the resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team in protest at Israeli settlement plans.
Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and his deputy, Muhammad Shtayyeh, tendered their resignations last week after Israel announced plans to step up settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In an interview with Egyptian CBC television, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas indicated that the talks would resume in about a week, even if the Palestinian delegation stuck to its decision. "Either we can convince them to return, and we're trying, or we form a new delegation."
Resignation threats by Palestinian officials are common, but are rarely carried out.
The latest crisis came only hours after a dramatic U-turn by Israel on settlement construction. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered housing minister Uri Ariel to shelve plans to build more than 20,000 new homes for settlers in the West Bank.
Sources in the prime minister's office said Mr Netanyahu was furious to learn of the plans, which included 1,200 units in the controversial E-1 area between Jerusalem and the large settlement of Maale Adumim, effectively blocking Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank.
“This step has no legal or practical significance and it creates an unnecessary conflict with the international community at a time when Israel is sparing no effort to prevent it from striking a bad deal with Iran,” a statement from the prime minister’s office said.
Prior to Mr Netanyahu’s decision to put the plans on hold, Mr Erekat informed diplomats that if Israel went ahead with the expansion, the Palestinians would consider the move a declaration of the termination of negotiations.
“This is not going to be tolerated,” he said. “Either they revoke this order or they will be held responsible for the end of the peace process.”
The planned construction, described by anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now as the largest ever in the West Bank, also drew an angry response from the Americans.
State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was taken by surprise. "Our position on settlements is quite clear – we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We've called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations."
Mr Ariel is a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party which receives much of its backing from settlers and their supporters. He has been a leading activist within the settler movement. Recently he made it clear that Israel would continue to build across the West Bank, despite the peace talks which aim at securing a land-for-peace compromise.
Sources in the prime minister’s office said the move was not co-ordinated with Mr Netanyahu. Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, from Labor, also criticised the move.
“Netanyahu’s government continues to follow two paths: on the one hand it appears to be engaged in serious negotiations, and on the other hand it is doing everything possible to make it clear to the world that Israel has no real intention of reaching a diplomatic agreement.”
In a separate development, an Israeli soldier was stabbed by a 16-year-old Palestinian on a bus in the northern city of Afula yesterday. The assailant, a West Bank resident in Israel illegally, said the killing was in revenge for the imprisonment of relatives in Israel.