Reporting from Jerusalem — A declaration by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday that there was "no alternative" to U.S.-brokered peace talks offered new hope that negotiations would not break down because of a standoff over Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Abbas did not mention the settlement issue in public comments before a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah that came after two days of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. U.S. special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell said the talks had made progress on the settlement issue, but he provided no details.
Aides to Abbas stressed that Palestinian opposition to Israel's housing construction remains. But the Palestinian leader's comments marked a change in tone from recent threats to walk out unless Israel extends its 10-month partial construction moratorium on land it seized in the 1967 Middle East War. That moratorium expires later this month.
"We all know that there is no alternative to peace other than negotiations," Abbas said. "Therefore, there is no choice for us but to continue in these efforts."
U.S. and Egyptian officials have reportedly renewed a compromise proposal that would extend the Israeli moratorium for three months, during which time the two sides would attempt to agree on permanent borders of an independent Palestinian state. After that, Israel would be free to resume building in settlements that would become part of Israel and would be required to halt expansion on land set aside for the Palestinian state.
The London-based newspaper Asharq al Awsat reported Thursday that Abbas had agreed to that plan.
Clinton told Israel's Channel 10 television in an interview broadcast late Thursday that it would be "extremely useful" for Israel to extend the partial freeze — even for a limited time.
Israeli officials, who rejected a similar proposal by U.S. officials several weeks ago, cautioned Thursday that they had not agreed to any extension of the moratorium.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure from his right-wing coalition to resume settlement construction, has hinted that he might agree to limit West Bank building to perhaps 2,000 units a year — about the same pace as under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Abbas' aides said he may yet decide to abandon the talks. But Abbas has built his career on eschewing violence and embracing negotiations as the only route to statehood. And he is facing strong international pressure to remain at the table.
"At the end of the day, he doesn't have any other option," said former Clinton administration negotiator Robert Malley, now Mideast director at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that specializes in conflict resolution. "He's always thrown his faith into the negotiation process."
Palestinian threats to quit the talks are puzzling and may reflect the fracture inside the Palestinian Authority over whether to participate in negotiations, Malley said. Many Palestinian leaders advised Abbas to refuse to join direct talks until Israel first agreed to extend the moratorium. Polls indicate that a majority of Palestinians oppose Abbas' participation in direct talks without a freeze on settlement construction.
"But when they take these strong positions and then walk them back, they end up losing credibility and goodwill at home," Malley said.
Palestinian analyst Hani Masri said the hard-line Palestinian stance on settlements may be a negotiating tactic to pressure Israel and win concessions from the U.S. or Europe.
Abbas "is trying to get something from this," he said. "But even if he does not get anything, he is not going to quit."
It remains unclear whether Israel will reconsider the proposal to extend the moratorium for three months.
"Would Netanyahu's coalition fall over that? I suspect not," said David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, one of Israel's major English-language dailies. "But it wouldn't do his credibility much good and would further antagonize his political right."
Any progress would be welcome news for the Obama administration. Critics questioned why the administration pushed the two sides toward talks without first ensuring that there was a way to bridge the settlement dispute. U.S. officials gambled that once talks were underway, pressure would be too high for either side to walk out.
"It looked like high-wire diplomacy, but it may end up that calculation may be right," Malley said. "Now the cost of failure for all three is too high."
Times staff writer Paul Richter and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.