US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that the “time is ripe” for Middle East peace, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepared for a second round of talks.
The most immediate dispute between the two sides surrounds a soon-to-expire curb on new construction for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The Palestinians want the curb extended beyond the current September 26 deadline, but Mr Netanyahu has suggested that at least some of the restraints will be lifted.
Mrs Clinton said yesterday that President Barack Obama’s administration believes Israel should extend the moratorium, but she also said it would take an effort by both sides to find a way around the problem.
“We recognise that an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and the Palestinians... that would enable the negotiations to continue is in the best interests of both sides,” she said.
Mrs Clinton spoke with reporters yesterday during a flight from Washington to Egypt for the latest round of the current Middle East peace talks, which began earlier this month in Washington.
After her arrival early today, she met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As Mr Netanyahu arrived at Sharm el-Sheikh, Mrs Clinton was meeting Mr Abbas.
The settlement freeze is not the only obstacle in the way of launching the talks in earnest. The two sides are bickering over what to discuss first: security or borders.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said late yesterday that the agenda for the talks had been agreed upon in Washington.
“The agenda includes final status issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees, security and prisoners,” he told reporters. “If you want to pick the right path, borders should come first. If you don’t want to reach (an agreement) pick some other paths.”
A senior Abbas aide, Mohammed Ishtayeh, appeared to take a hard line on the issue of settlement construction, telling reporters in Sharm el-Sheikh today that an Israeli extension of its partial freeze would not signal progress in the negotiations but rather progress in “confidence-building”.
“The freeze on settlements (construction) is not a topic in the negotiations,” he said. “Removing settlements is.”
On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu seemed to reject a total freeze on construction, saying a Palestinian demand for no construction would not happen. He said Israel would not build thousands of planned homes, but without providing details or a timeline added: “We will not freeze the lives of the residents.”
Mr Obama said last week that he had urged Mr Netanyahu to extend the partial moratorium as long as talks were making progress.
The US President also said he told Mr Abbas that, if he showed he was serious about negotiating, it would give political manoeuvring room to Mr Netanyahu on the settlement issue. Mr Abbas knows “the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing”, Mr Obama said.
Although some analysts caution that any peace deal faces daunting obstacles, Mrs Clinton has said an initial round of talks in Washington on September 2 generated some momentum. They were the first face-to-face talks between the two sides in nearly two years.
After Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas meet today in Sharm el-Sheikh, their talks move to Jerusalem tomorrow. Mrs Clinton and former Senator George Mitchell, Mr Obama’s special envoy to the region, plan to join the talks.