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Middle East

New building permits cast shadow over Middle East peace talks

Jewish settlers have permits to start building thousands of new homes within hours of the end of a 10-month construction freeze in the occupied West Bank, an Israeli watchdog revealed.

The Peace Now organisation said in a report that settlers have the necessary approvals for some 13,000 new homes, and could theoretically start building many of these as soon as the freeze ends in the last week of September.

The disclosure comes as the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, prepare to resume US-mediated peace talks in Egypt today.

The two leaders meet in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, not least over settlements, which are illegal under international law and are built on the territory that the Palestinians want as the basis for their future state. The Palestinians have demanded that Israel prolong the moratorium, first imposed last November to coax the Palestinians into talks, warning that they will otherwise cause the talks to collapse.

Mr Netanyahu, under pressure from his right-wing pro-settler coalition partners to stand firm, ruled out an extension over the weekend, although many believe that the government will impose a tacit freeze, which would limit construction through the permit approval process.

Peace Now said construction can start on 2,066 homes immediately, while settlers hold the necessary permits to start building once the freeze is lifted for a further 11,000 houses. Five thousand of those homes, it added, are located east of the separation fence, the Israeli-built barrier that broadly follows the 1967 border but at times substantially deviates from this into West Bank territory. Nevertheless, the watchdog admitted that many of these houses will likely not go ahead immediately, given insufficient demand or money.

Amid concerns that the talks could fail over the settlement issue before they have properly begun, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last week that this round of talks are the "last chance".

Her words were an apparent nod to Mr Abbas's political difficulties after his mandate to lead expired last year. Hamas, the Islamist movement in Gaza that passionately rejects the talks, has enjoyed growing popularity in the West Bank in recent months.

Washington hopes to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to a framework agreement within one year, yet the two sides remain deeply divided over even relatively minor issues, such as the Palestinian reluctance to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Even the agenda of the talks is in dispute. The Palestinians want first to discuss borders, while Mr Netanyahu reportedly wants to start with security.

Some commentators in Israel say that the time for a two-state solution is already passing, largely because of the political difficulty in evacuating hundreds of thousands of hardline settlers who believe it is their God-given right to settle the whole of biblical Israel.