Settlements row to dominate US-led Mideast talks

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a round of talks on Tuesday to try to bridge an impasse over Israeli settlement building that threatens to scupper new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Last Updated: Sep 14, 2010, 19:07 PM IST

Egypt: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a round of talks on Tuesday to try to bridge an impasse over Israeli settlement building that threatens to scupper new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Comments by Palestinians and Israelis before the talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh did not suggest a compromise was at hand to resolve the dispute over Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

"Choosing to continue with settlements in any form means destroying the negotiations," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said to a news agency.

Erekat was speaking after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he would not extend a partial building freeze, though he indicated he would curb future construction.

"We hope that instead of pursuing an all-or-nothing approach the Palestinians will seek a way of bridging our differences," a senior Israeli official said shortly before heading to Egypt.

Clinton said both Israel and the Palestinians needed to take actions to resolve the disagreement over Israel`s plans to end its partial freeze on Jewish settlement building on land Palestinians want for a state.

"For me, this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state," Clinton told reporters as she traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh, where she began her day by meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

She was then to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu -- separately and then together -- in the second set of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks after a 20-month hiatus.

Netanyahu and Abbas kicked off the latest in a long line of US-brokered talks in Washington on September 2, hoping for a deal on the major issues -- including settlements, security, borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees -- within a year.

But the nascent initiative, driven by US President Barack Obama, could unravel almost immediately.

The Palestinians say they will quit the peace talks unless Israel extends its moratorium on new construction in settlements when it expires at the end of September.

"Talks are a test of intentions if Israel extends the moratorium on settlements then that widens the margin of negotiations and we continue to negotiate," Mohammed Shtayyeh, a Palestinian delegate to the talks, said in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Allies of Netanyahu, whose coalition is dominated by pro-settler parties, warn of a government collapse if he fails to resume expanding the settler enclaves.

The settlements are built on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and are deemed by the World Court to be illegal under international law.

Low expectations

Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has long played a mediator role in the region. But has often criticized Israel, particularly on settlements.

"Settlements are rejected entirely by Egypt, Palestine, and the Arabs," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said.

Signaling low expectations, officials said there would be no news conferences or joint statements on Tuesday.

Diplomats have said they do not expect a resolution of the moratorium question until much closer to the end of the month.

Clinton will meet Netanyahu and Abbas together again in Jerusalem on Wednesday as she seeks to keep the talks alive.

"The United States believes that the moratorium should be extended," Clinton told reporters, echoing Obama.

But, in a comment that appeared to place some of the onus on the Palestinians, she added: "There are obligations on both sides to ensure that these negotiations continue."

Obama has staked considerable political capital in the talks, launching them before November congressional elections, where fellow Democrats face possible big losses to Republicans.

A swift implosion would be a major blow and he is expected to put huge pressure on both sides to stay at the table.

Besides settlements, the Israelis and Palestinians are expected to discuss this week how to structure their talks, should they go ahead, and decide which issues to tackle first.

Abbas wants to focus on setting the borders of a future country, while Netanyahu wants to look at security arrangements to ensure a Palestinian state would not threaten Israel.

Bureau Report