JERUSALEM //Palestinian political factions yesterday urged the president, Mahmoud Abbas, to abandon direct peace negotiations with Israel after it failed to extend a partial freeze on construction of West Bank settlements. But Mr Abbas held back yesterday on a threat to quit the talks after the expiration of the freeze at midnight Sunday. He told reporters in Paris he would not rush to respond to Israel's resumption of settlement construction, but would first consult with Palestinian and Arab leaders.
He said the Palestinians would hold a cabinet meeting this week and then discuss the next step with Arab foreign ministers on Sunday. "After all these meetings, we may be able to issue a position to clarify what is the Palestinian and Arab opinion on this matter," Mr Abbas said. A wide-scale resumption of settlement construction might force Mr Abbas to quit the talks, but Israel is hoping that he will tolerate low-key construction.
Yesterday, bulldozers were preparing plots of land in Ariel to build homes for settlers and construction was poised to resume in more than half a dozen other sites. Also, earthmovers started work in settlements near Nablus, the largest city in the northern West Bank, said Ghassan Doughlas, the Palestinian Authority's head of settlement monitoring in the area. Meanwhile, there was little indication that Jewish settlers and their supporters would heed Sunday's appeal from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, to restrain their comments and enthusiasm.
An official at the Yesha Council, which represents settlement municipalities, said the only impediment to "full, natural-paced growth" was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which ends tomorrow evening. The Israeli military has barred Palestinians from entering Jewish areas during the religious holiday, and the official, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the issue, said "most contractors don't work during this time".
After the holiday, construction would begin in earnest "across the board, at all communities," the Yesha official said, adding that work would not be restricted to communities that could be swapped for land if Israel and the Palestinians make a deal. Although considered illegal by the international community, Israel has built more than 120 settlements in the West Bank, with more than 300,000 residents, since conquering the area. A further 200,000 live in settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
The end of the freeze is increasing the pressure on Mr Abbas. While he has suggested as recently as yesterday that negotiations could continue despite the freeze's expiration - a reversal of his previous position - Palestinian factions, including allies of Fatah, his party, have demanded that he walk away from the talks. Immediately after the end of the freeze, a statement on Mr Netanyahu's website urged Mr Abbas "to continue the good and sincere talks that we have just started, in order to reach an historic peace agreement between our two peoples".
The statement said the Israeli leader had been in close contact with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II to "ensure both the continuation of the talks and their success". The armed wing of Fatah, the Al Aqsa Brigades, called yesterday for Palestinian leaders to abandon the talks and threatened to teach settlers "unforgettable lessons", the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.
On Sunday, the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) announced it would no longer attend meetings of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) executive committee. The PFLP and all other factions of the PLO umbrella organisation - except for Mr Abbas's Fatah - opposed negotiations with Israel. Khalida Jarrar, a PFLP member and Palestinian member of parliament, said her organisation withdrew from the committee, in part, because its procedural rules were violated when it was decided to enter the negotiations last month.
A two-thirds vote is required to approve a decision by the 18-member committee, but only six members voted in favour of the talks. "That's not two-thirds and that's not legal," she said, adding that Mr Abbas "should represent the majority opinion among Palestinians, and going back to the negotiations does not represent that opinion". Ziad Sarafendi, a Fatah politician who lives and works in Gaza, said the only way for pressure on Mr Abbas to be relieved is if the United States convinces Israel to halt settlement expansion.
"I think most Palestinians don't want Abbas to continue negotiations," he said. "But at the same time, if he wants to continue to negotiate while settlements are growing, this will only be a liability for him." Meanwhile, Khalid Meshaal, the Syrian-based leader of Hamas, said yesterday that only minor issues remain for a full reconciliation with the rival Fatah group, headed by Mr Abbas. He did not give details but said the two sides have taken "serious and real steps" towards reconciliation and would meet in Cairo in early October for more talks.
Repeated efforts to reconcile the two sides have failed. Breakthroughs have been heralded before, only to fizzle. Reconciliation would likely require major concessions, including the integration of rival security forces and new elections - issues the group has shown little interest in compromising on so far.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse