Israeli army chief sees violence if talks fail

The Middle East Quartet is expected to raise pressure on Israel to refrain from settlement expansion after the 10-month embargo expires next week.

An Israeli soldier (R) prevents Palestinian farmers (L) from scuffling with Israeli settlers (unseen) in the West Bank village of Burin on September 21, 2010 after a group of settlers picked up olives from Palestinian groves. AFP PHOTO/JAAFAR ASHTIYEH

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TEL AVIV // Israel's army chief warned yesterday that a failure of the nascent peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could spur violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The comments by Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi came amid Israeli media reports that Washington is concerned that the dispute over Jewish settlements in the West Bank could put an end to US-mediated talks that were launched only this month after a 20-month hiatus. The Quartet of Middle East mediators, which includes the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, was expected to raise pressure on Israel yesterday to refrain from settlement expansion by urging the country to extend a 10-month partial construction moratorium that expires next week. The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks should the freeze not be renewed.

The group's document said: "The Quartet noted that the commendable Israeli settlement moratorium instituted last November has had a positive impact and urged its continuation," according to the Reuters news agency, which obtained the statement before the Quartet's meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, where it was expected to make it public. The statement was also expected to urge both sides to refrain from "provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric" and call upon Israel to further ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel, in the meantime, has provided no indication that it plans to extend the moratorium. Gen Ashkenazi, speaking during a meeting of the Israeli parliament's defence and foreign affairs committee, said the Israeli army was "preparing for all possibilities and developments" should the fragile negotiations fail. He added that a collapse of the peace process could prompt "violent eruptions, including violent protests and terror attacks." He said, however, that he does not expect violence to reach the levels of 2000, the year that the second Palestinian intifada began.

According to Mr Ashkenazi, the Israeli army is not relying on the Palestinian security forces in its preparation for possible violence and is "reserving for itself the right for freedom of operation" throughout the West Bank. Such a comment may anger Palestinian officials, who have demanded that Israel grant them more autonomy on security matters in the occupied territory. Washington has also raised concerns about a possible collapse of the peace process. James Cunningham, the US ambassador in Israel, told Tel Aviv-based ambassadors from the European Union this week that the United States had still not been able to break the deadlock on the settlement dispute, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported.

Mr Cunningham added that although there were several possible solutions, the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, has not yet officially issued its own proposal to bridge the rift, the report said. "We will provide a bridging proposal only if the two sides ask for it," he was cited by the report as saying. "We are worried because not much time is left to find a solution." Mr Cunningham said that a joint assessment by US legal experts and Israel concluded that the freeze expires at midnight on September 25, according to the report. The end of the moratorium has been a matter of debate in Israel since the 10-month period expires on September 26 while an army order on the freeze claims it will be over on September 30. The Israeli government has not clarified which date is the effective halt date.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told hundreds of Jewish leaders on Monday during a conference call that he expected the Palestinians to stick to the negotiations despite the settlement dispute. "We got rid of the pre-conditions before we launched the talks. It's not possible to go back and present them five minutes after the talks started," he said. Mr Netanyahu's allies have publicly backed up his stance. Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minister and a senior member of the prime minister's Likud Party, told journalists on Monday that the Palestinians should relax their demand for a settlement freeze.

"In order to succeed in these negotiations, both parties need to understand that neither side can come out of them with all that they wanted," Mr Meridor said. "The first test for spirit of compromise on both sides is this issue of the moratorium. If they say no compromise, it's a bad sign."