JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's chief peace negotiator on Sunday accused a hard-line faction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's increasingly unwieldy coalition government of undermining her efforts, while Jewish settlers moved into a sensitive West Bank building that has been a flashpoint of violence in the past.
The sniping inside Netanyahu's coalition was the latest sign of infighting that has hampered U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's peace efforts. While committed to conducting peace talks, Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by hard-liners who oppose making significant concessions or reject the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Netanyahu's chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said in an interview that she was optimistic the sides would get through a crisis that has left the talks on the brink of collapse.
"I believe we are close enough that decisions on both sides will be made, with American encouragement, to continue the talks," Livni told the Ynet website.
She also accused the hard-line "Jewish Home," a pro-settler party, of trying to thwart her efforts. She took special aim at the party's leader, Naftali Bennett, and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements.
"There are people in the government who don't want peace," Livni said. "Bennett and Uri Ariel represent those who want to prevent a peace process."
Negotiations broke down early this month after Israel failed to carry out a promised release of Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinians responded by reviving a campaign for recognition in international bodies, triggering a series of Israeli sanctions.
Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, have been meeting in recent days with American mediators, trying to salvage the talks and extend them beyond the current April 29 deadline. Erekat has said in recent days the gaps are still wide.
Over the weekend, Bennett said he would pull his party out of the coalition if Israel carries out the prisoner release, which was to be the last of four stages promised at the outset of talks. The final release is especially contentious both because the prisoners were convicted in bloody attacks, and because 14 of them are Arab citizens of Israel.
If Bennett leaves, Netanyahu would be left without a parliamentary majority — a scenario that would force him to seek a more dovish partner or lead to new elections.
Further escalating tensions, three families of Jewish settlers moved into a contested house in the volatile city of Hebron after a protracted legal battle.
Under heavy protection by Israeli forces, the families moved belongings into the home without incident. A group of Palestinian protesters gathered nearby, holding up signs criticizing settlements as the "real" terrorism.
Settlers first moved into the building in 2007, but were evicted by the army amid legal over how they obtained the property. A court recently found the purchase of the home to be legitimate.
Hebron is home to several hundred ultranationalist settlers, who live in heavily guarded enclaves amid more than 100,000 Palestinians.
Orit Struck, a Jewish Home lawmaker and resident of Hebron, said the home is the first settlement bridgehead in the city in 14 years.
"This is just the beginning," Struck said. "This paves the way for us buying dozens more homes and expanding the Jewish settlement in Hebron."
The Palestinians condemned the Hebron move-in.
"This is a government that will do everything possible in order to turn its occupation into annexation of our land," Palestinian official Mohammed Shtayyeh said.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Hebron, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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