Middle East

Jewish settlers warn of Israel coalition collapse

Israeli settlers in Efrat, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem (2009)
Image caption Up to 13,000 new homes have been approved for the West Bank

A Jewish settler group has warned that Israel's ruling coalition could collapse if the government continues its freeze on settlement building.

A day before peace talks are to resume, the Yesha Council warned it would withdraw its support for PM Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.

A partial freeze on Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank is due to expire on 26 September.

The Palestinians say they will walk out of the talks if construction resumes.

Meanwhile, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was optimistic that the Israelis and the Palestinians could reach a peace deal.

Mr Blair, the international Quartet's Middle East envoy, made the remark a day before the second round of direct talks was due to open in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

Mr Blair told the BBC that both Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas want peace, and know that if the chance for agreement is lost now, it could disappear for many years.

"The politics is very difficult internally, but for the people on both sides, I think they will back political leadership that offers a just deal," Mr Blair said.

"But my point is very simple - both peoples want peace. The negotiation is tough, but the alternative to negotiation is conflict."

Key hurdle

The issue of illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land is seen as one of the most crucial issues under discussion at the talks, says the BBC's Wyre Davies in Jerusalem.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama said he had urged Mr Netanyahu to continue the partial construction freeze in the settlements as the best way of helping talks to progress.

But right-wing groups in Israel have warned that the talks are doomed to failure over the issue of settlements.

"If this government does not abide by its promises, then it will not be able to continue to govern," said Danny Dayan, Chairman of the Yesha Council, a powerful political body representing many of the 400,000 Israelis who live in illegal Jewish settlements on the Palestinian West Bank and in Arab East Jerusalem.

In a statement, the council said that "any continuation of the construction freeze would lead to severe political instability within Israel and the ultimate collapse of the current government".

Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib again called on the Israeli government to end all settlement activity, saying it was endangering the peace process.

"Israel should stop all kinds of settlement activities in order to give a chance for negotiations," Mr Khatib told the BBC. "Any Israeli settlement activities is a threat to the newly-established Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in Egypt and Jerusalem for the talks, which she says may be the last chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mrs Clinton said there was a "certain momentum" after an initial round in Washington on 2 September, which marked the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in nearly two years.

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