A second round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ended today without visible progress on the divisive issue of Jewish settlement construction, but the leaders did discuss a range of disputes standing in the way of a permanent deal.
In a potentially positive sign, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held an extra meeting in Egypt before the negotiations shift to Jerusalem tomorrow.
“The parties have begun a serious discussion on core issues,” said US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the region, George Mitchell, after the leaders met for almost two hours in Egypt with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Those issues included determining borders for Israel and a Palestinian state and ensuring security for Israel.
Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said each side has some hard decisions ahead.
“The way to an agreement is to look at all the core issues together. Not to run away from any one of them,” he said.
Mr Mitchell was pressed to say whether there was movement on the settlements, and responded: “We continue our efforts to make progress and we believe that we are moving in the right direction, overall.”
He repeated Mrs Clinton’s call for Israel to extend its soon-to-expire curb on settlement construction in the West Bank.
“We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium, especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction,” he said. “We know this is a politically sensitive issue in Israel. But we’ve also called on President Abbas to take steps that help encourage and facilitate this process.
“We believe both sides have a responsibility to help ensure that these talks continue in a constructive manner.”
The ultimate aim is a deal that creates a sovereign Palestinian state beside a secure Israel.
The Palestinians want Israel’s settlement curb extended beyond the current September 26 deadline. Mr Netanyahu has suggested that at least some of the restraints will be lifted.
Mrs Clinton said the Obama 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.
A senior Abbas aide, Mohammed Ishtayeh, told reporters that an Israeli extension of its partial freeze would not signal progress in the negotiations but in “confidence building”.
“The freeze on settlements (construction) is not a topic in the negotiations,” he said. “Removing settlements is.”