Israel's hardline foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday urged an end to the partial halt to Jewish West Bank settlement building next month and cast doubt on the success of imminent direct peace negotiations.
Adopting his customary public posture as the Cabinet's hawkish outrider, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party insisted a continuation of the settlement slowdown would "punish" tens of thousands of his fellow-settlers.
The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House launch of the talks next week, has told Washington he will pull out of the negotiations if the moratorium on settlement building ends as planned on 26 September.
Mr Lieberman told Israel Radio he realised that resuming settlement construction would antagonise both the US and the Palestinian leadership. He added: "We don't need to create unnecessary conflicts but we don't need to punish and we don't need to fold either."
Mr Lieberman said of the Palestinian leadership who have agreed to re-enter talks after intense US-led pressure: "They are not coming out of true goodwill to make peace, they are coming because they were forced to come. I think everyone should lower expectations."
A debate is already under way within the Israeli Cabinet over what, if anything, to offer on settlement construction as a means of keeping the talks going. One of its senior members from the dominant Likud Party, Dan Meridor, has proposed a compromise under which building would resume freely only in the "settlement blocs" which Israel expects to fall within its borders under any peace deal.
So far it remains unclear whether Mr Netanyhau and his fellow ministers would agree to that in the face of settler demands for a full ending on the freeze – or whether it would be enough to keep Mr Abbas in the talks even if they did.
Mr Meridor said in a radio interview on Tuesday: "This is my position, it's not the government's position yet. I am mentioning it because we should try to reach an agreement on it. We're not there yet."
And the internal pressure on Mr Abbas was underlined yesterday when his supporters disrupted a meeting in Ramallah at which dissenters in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had planned to demand that he should not enter negotiations without a total halt to settlement building.