Israel's prime minister on Sunday urged the Palestinians to avoid unilateral action and resume peace talks, a reflection of growing concern that the Palestinian leadership may be inching toward a "Plan B" in which they seek international recognition of an independent state without Israeli agreement.
Talks have stalled, just weeks after their launch, following Israel's decision to resume full-fledged settlement building in the West Bank after a 10-month period of restrictions. The Palestinians have said they cannot negotiate with Israel unless the curbs are renewed, and one senior Palestinian official on Sunday insisted on a total halt to construction.
As the stalemate drags on, the Palestinians have said they are considering sidestepping Israel by seeking U.N. Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem _ territories the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
At the start of the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the Palestinians to "honor their obligation to engage in direct negotiations."
"I think any attempt to circumvent it by going to international bodies isn't realistic and won't advance true peacemaking in any way," Netanyahu said. "Peace will be achieved only through direct talks."
Netanyahu said he was in close contact with U.S. mediators in an effort to revive the talks, which were launched with great fanfare at the White House on Sept. 2. He said he remained committed to reaching the outlines of a deal within one year, the target set by the White House.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected Netanyahu's criticism, saying Israel is acting unilaterally through settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
"We don't want to engage in unilateral action," he said, calling on Netanyahu to "stop unilateral actions and engage as a partner in peace by stopping settlement activity."
Palestinian government spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Sunday that the Palestinians insist on a total halt in construction, implying that extending the slowdown that expired in late September is not enough. "There should be a total freeze of settlement activity in order for the negotiations to be resumed," he said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn't expected to take any unilateral action before September 2011. But he already has instructed top aides to begin preparing for options other than a negotiated deal.
The chief alternative, Palestinian officials say, is to pursue U.N. Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Such validation would not immediately force Israel to end its occupation of disputed lands, but it could boost the Palestinians' leverage in the diplomatic arena. And Palestinians hope it would cause Israel to curtail its military operations on that territory, too.
But unilateral Palestinian action could also set Israel free to take its own one-sided steps, like annexing parts of the West Bank.
While Netanyahu says he's committed to Obama's timeframe, Israelis, too, are skeptical that the two sides can reach an agreement within a year and are also setting their sights lower.
One scaled-back alternative would give the Palestinians a state in parts of the West Bank, with international safeguards about a future deal.
Decisions on core issues _ like resolving the competing claims to Jerusalem and determining the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees from the war surrounding Israel's 1948 creation _ would be put off.
The Palestinians adamantly reject such a scenario, fearing that a temporary arrangement falling short of their demands would become permanent.
Both sides appear to be biding time until Nov. 2 midterm elections in the U.S. It remains unclear how the election will affect the peace efforts.