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Israeli settlement freeze ends with peace talks in doubt

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel allowed its 10-month settlement construction freeze in the West Bank to expire on Monday, defying a U.S. call to extend the moratorium which Palestinians have said is necessary to keep peace talks going.

Minutes after the moratorium expired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to continue “expedited, honest talks” to achieve an “historic” peace deal within a year.

“Israel is ready to pursue continuous contacts in the coming days to find a way to continue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he said in a statement.

The Israeli leader has resisted calls from President Barack Obama to extend the construction freeze but the United States said late Sunday it was trying to ensure both sides continued to negotiate despite Israel’s decision.

“We keep pushing for the talks to continue,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in a brief statement, adding that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had twice spoken to Netanyahu Sunday.

Netanyahu, whose governing coalition is dominated by pro-settler parties, earlier urged Jewish settlers to show restraint before the freeze ended at midnight.

His plea to settlers appeared aimed at persuading Abbas not to carry out his threat to quit negotiations launched in Washington on September 2, unless the freeze were extended.

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Palestinians say settlements will make it impossible for them to create a viable state and the issue is one of the core problems standing in the way of any peace deal.

More than 430,000 Jews live in well over 100 settlements established across the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land that Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 Middle East war. The World Court deems settlements illegal but Israel disputes this.

Netanyahu has held out the prospect of limiting the scope of renewed construction, a message he seemed to underscore in an official statement Sunday.

“The prime minister calls on the residents in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the political parties to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future exactly as they showed restraint and responsibility throughout the months of the freeze,” it said.

But settler leaders vowed to begin erecting next week some 2,000 homes in the West Bank, where Netanyahu in November imposed under U.S. pressure a partial moratorium on housing starts.

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In his statement Netanyahu said he had been in touch with Clinton and the leaders of Jordan and Egypt in the past few days in search of a way to ensure the nascent negotiations continued.

He urged Abbas “to continue the sincere, good talks we have just begun with the aim of reaching an historic peace agreement between our two peoples,” a statement released by Netanyahu’s office said.

“I hope that President Abbas will remain in the talks and continue with me on the path to peace that we began three weeks ago,” Netanyahu said, adding: “my intentions to achieve peace are serious and honest.”

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Netanyahu said he had gone a “significant, long way to help the Palestinians” by easing restrictions on travel in the occupied West Bank and alluding to the recent easing of a land blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

“For the sake of the futures of both our peoples, let’s focus on what is really important, let’s continue expedited, honest talks in order to bring an historic framework agreement of peace within a year,” he added, reiterating a goal set out by the U.S. when it sponsored a launch of peace talks this month.

Abbas has appeared to indicate the talks would not be suspended immediately upon the moratorium’s expiration.

Asked in an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, whether he would declare an end to the negotiations if the freeze did not continue, Abbas said: “No, we will go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab follow-up committee.”

He was referring in the interview, conducted Friday and published Sunday, to an Arab League forum that gave him the go-ahead to pursue direct peace talks with Israel.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said the Palestinian leader had requested a meeting of the follow-up committee in Cairo and it would likely convene “within days.”