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Palestinians aim to isolate Israel with war crimes charges, demonstrations, sanctions

By Mohammed Daraghmeh

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

An Israeli walks near a construction site in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Sholmo, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012.

Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Weeks ahead of Israeli elections, Palestinian officials are already plotting a series of tough steps against Israel to be taken if, as polls predict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is re-elected and peace efforts remain stalled.

Emboldened by their newly upgraded status at the United Nations, the Palestinians are talking of filing war crimes charges against Israel, staging mass demonstrations in the West Bank, encouraging the international community to impose sanctions, and ending the security cooperation that has helped preserve quiet in recent years.

These plans, combined with growing international impatience with Israeli settlement construction on occupied land, could spell trouble and international isolation for the Israeli leader.

In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, a number of Palestinian officials all voiced a similar theme: Following the U.N. General Assembly's recognition of "Palestine" as a nonmember observer state in November, the status quo cannot continue.

"2013 will see a new Palestinian political track. There will be new rules in our relationship with Israel and the world," said Hussam Zumlot, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down shortly before Netanyahu's election in early 2009 and have remained frozen throughout his term, mostly due to the dispute over Israel's construction of settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Palestinians claim the areas, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future state. Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt settlement construction before negotiations can resume, saying the continued building is a show of bad faith. Netanyahu says talks should resume without preconditions, and notes that a 10-month partial freeze on construction he imposed two years ago failed to bring about substantive negotiations.

Frustrated with the impasse, the Palestinians turned to the United Nations for recognition of an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005, rejects a return to its 1967 lines.

Although the U.N. vote did not change the situation on the ground, it had deep implications. Opposed by just nine countries, it amounted to a strong international endorsement of the Palestinian position on future borders. It also cleared the way for them to join international agencies to press their grievances against Israel.

Netanyahu has accused the Palestinians of bypassing direct negotiations.

"One would hope we will in fact see in 2013 the re-emergence of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process," said Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev. "There is no substitute for direct talks. You're not going to make peace in resolutions at the United Nations or other international forums."

At the heart of the deadlock are the huge gaps between the two sides' conditions. Netanyahu has embraced the idea of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Without action soon, the thinking goes, Israel will find itself in permanent control of millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, threatening its status as a democracy with a Jewish majority. But Netanyahu has added so many caveats, including a refusal to turn Jerusalem into a shared capital and demands to retain significant parts of the West Bank, that the Palestinians believe negotiations would be futile.

Palestinian officials say they are hopeful that a formula for restarting talks can be found after Israel's election on Jan. 22, perhaps through a new initiative from President Barack Obama.

The Palestinians have begun to speak of a trial, six-month negotiating period. Azzam al-Ahmed, a top aide to Abbas, said Arab diplomats will present the plan in Western capitals, Russia and China next month. But with the Palestinians insistent on a settlement freeze, and opinion polls forecasting a new hardline Israeli coalition headed by Netanyahu, expectations are low.

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