Palestinians cynical over US pressure on Israel to freeze settlements

Palestinians hold out little hope for any talks emerging from US pressure to accept a four-month settlement halt.

RAMALLAH // Fair Harb looked like he couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. "Look," the 39-year-old restaurateur said, sipping coffee in a popular cafe near the centre of Ramallah, "this is the same old trick. Ever since Oslo, it's been the same old trick."

Mr Harb was referring to Israeli media reports that the US was pressing Israel to agree to a four-month settlement construction freeze in Jerusalem and enter immediately into direct negotiations with the Palestinians rather than proximity talks. Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, has said that he will not negotiate, directly or indirectly, as long as Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem continues. A short freeze might provide some cover for Mr Abbas to do so, just as it could for the Israeli government, which, though it successfully resisted US pressure for a similar if longer freeze last year, is under domestic scrutiny for its handling of relations with its most important ally.

Either way, suggested Mr Harb, it wouldn't be make much of a difference to Israel. "Israel is just buying time. It has been buying time for 20 years. Four months have no value. It's worse: it's a joke. All settlements are illegal. There should be no talk of freezes. Settlements must end." Serving coffee in Ramallah's municipal park, Luay, 23, a waiter, agreed, even if he acknowledged that, "I don't follow politics", and hadn't read the report.

"Four months? Why so little? Shouldn't it stop altogether? The suggestion that Barack Obama, the US president, has proposed a complete settlement construction freeze in occupied East Jerusalem as part of 10 US conditions on Israel to bolster faltering efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians was widely reported in the Israeli media yesterday. The reports have not been officially confirmed, and Palestinian officials are reluctant to comment on the record. One senior Palestinian Authority official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if the reports are true, "it is not good enough".

"A settlement construction freeze shouldn't be limited. Israel has to adhere to its road map requirements and there are no time limits in the road map." The Israeli government will certainly resist any US attempts at freezing construction in East Jerusalem. A settlement construction freeze there of any duration would be unprecedented. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, described such a move as "completely unacceptable" to the Israeli government in an interview with the Maariv newspaper yesterday.

Indeed, there has never been, as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is keen to point out, an Israeli government since Israel unilaterally annexed the eastern half of the city in 1967 that has not built in East Jerusalem. This is in spite of the fact that the annexation and construction there for civilian purposes contradicts international law and has not been recognised by any country.

Israel disputes this, but it is so well understood by Palestinians that it almost trips off the tongue whenever anyone is asked. That such transgression of international law should go unpunished is in fact one of the greatest causes of anger among Palestinians, anger that, according to one of Luay's customers in the park, is about to spill over. "You can see it everywhere," said Ammar, a 37-year-old furniture salesman. "You can see it in people's eyes. And especially over Jerusalem. The Israeli policy there is crazy."

Ammar, who declined to give his family name, said 20 years of negotiations had led nowhere and the situation could not continue this way much longer. He did not go quite so far to suggest, as Hamas did yesterday, that Fatah "apologise to the Palestinians for forcing them into a failed process that lasted 20 years". Indeed, Ammar, along with his grandmother, I'm Jihad, both said they hoped peace would come soon. Ammar said he held US citizenship, had voted for Mr Obama and still held out hope that "Obama is sincere".

"I'll give him, and negotiations, another year, maybe two. For now, we, Palestinians and Arabs, have no options. Maybe in time either a genuine process or strong Arab leadership will emerge." Mr Harb thinks a corner has incontrovertibly been turned. "There is no hope for any process, because there is no genuine partner for peace [in Israel]. Right now, we have no peace and no war. "That can't continue and since there is no chance of peace, there is only one way to go."