Netanyahu: Don't stop peace talks
Jerusalem - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fended off intense international pressure, allowing a settlement freeze to expire at midnight, but urged Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas not to abandon peace talks in protest.
"I call on president Abbas to continue with the good and honest talks we have just embarked upon, in an attempt to reach a historic peace agreement between our two peoples," Netanyahu said in a statement early on Monday, minutes after allowing the 10-month partial moratorium on settlement construction to lapse.
Abbas, for his part, urged Netanyahu to re-impose the building ban.
President Abbas "wants to continue the negotiations but Netanyahu must take a decision to freeze the settlements in order to create an appropriate atmosphere to proceed with the peace talks," Abbas' spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP in Paris.
The United States also renewed its call that Israel keep a freeze on the construction of new settlements, saying that its position on the issue remains unchanged.
"We remain focused on the goal of advancing negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that goal," said State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley.
Diplomatic talks in overdrive
The Palestinian leader has repeatedly warned he would walk out of peace talks that were relaunched at the beginning of the month if Israel resumes building in the occupied West Bank.
But he appeared to step back from the brink on Sunday, saying he would meet top Arab diplomats on October 4 before deciding his next move.
The statement from Netanyahu did not directly mention the settlement freeze, but acknowledged a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at saving the fledgling peace process.
"During the day and in recent days Prime Minister Netanyahu held intensive contacts with US Secretary of State (Hillary) Clinton and other American officials," the statement said, adding that he had also spoken with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
In Washington, Crowley said Clinton spoke with Netanyahu and Tony Blair, the representative of the quartet of foreign entities actively engaged in the talks. The US, the European Union, Russia and the UN make up the quartet.
At the same time Mideast peace envoy Senator George Mitchell and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman conferred in New York on Sunday with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"We keep pushing for the talks to continue," Crowley said in a statement.
Much depends on how Abbas will react.
Settlers urged to show restraint
A wide-scale resumption of settlement construction would almost certainly force Abbas to quit talks, but Israel is hoping that he would tolerate low-key construction.
Netanyahu urged settlers to display "restraint and responsibility" once the moratorium expires.
Nevertheless, around 2 000 people, including hundreds from Netanyahu's own right-wing Likud party and a large contingent of flag-waving evangelical Christians, flooded into Revava settlement in the northern West Bank for a rally marking the end of the freeze.
Standing in front of a stage draped with a huge banner emblazoned with the slogan "We salute the pioneers of Judaea and Samaria", the crowds counted down from 10 to zero as the sun set over the rugged hills.
"The freeze is over," shouted Likud hard-liner Danny Danon to roars of approval.
Earlier, settlers laid the cornerstone for a new nursery school in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Netafim in an event organised by Danon, who is not a settler himself.
But settlers conceded that despite the symbolic displays, there was unlikely to be a flood of construction.
"We are getting back to business as usual and building but we will respect the prime minister's request," said David Ha'ivri, head of the Samaria regional council.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, settler sources told AFP they had been given the nod from the premier's office to start building - but on condition they "don't make a big deal of it".
And other events on the ground could also derail the talks, highlighted by an attack in the West Bank late on Sunday, when suspected Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli vehicle, lightly wounding two Israelis, including a pregnant woman, the military said.
The attack happened south of the city of Hebron near an area where four Israelis were killed in a similar shooting earlier in the month.
Jewish settlement of occupied Palestinian land is one of the most bitter aspects of the conflict.
Currently, around 500 000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians want for their promised state.
A previous round of direct talks collapsed in December 2008 when Israel launched a war on the Gaza Strip aimed at halting rocket attacks.