US asks Israel to extend moratorium on settlement construction

The United States has asked Israel to extend a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank.

Jerusalem: The United States has asked
Israel to extend a ten-month moratorium on settlement
construction in the West Bank as Israeli and Palestinian
leaders met today for a second round of direct talks in the
Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium," US
Middle East envoy George Mitchell said following the summit.

Even as the issue overshadowed the efforts to generate
momentum in the talks, reports of a new Jerusalem city housing
plan further cast shadow over the process.

The Jerusalem District Planning and Construction
Committee will discuss plans for 1,362 new homes in Givat
Hamatos, between the suburbs of Talpiot and Gilo on October 7,
Israeli daily Ha`aretz reported on Tuesday.

The hilltop area is currently the site of a caravan
village populated mostly by Arabs and Ethiopian immigrants,
and although not covered by the Israeli moratorium on
constructions, can have significant diplomatic consequences
given the timing of the announcement, the report said.

The move can prove to be a severe blow to efforts to
generate momentum in peace talks, already marred over
controversy related to building activities in the West Bank,
aiming at achieving a two-state solution to the vexed
Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The news of the Jerusalem debate, however, could jolt
efforts to promote peace talks as it can be seen as a
provocation by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has
repeatedly vowed to quit negotiations over Israeli assertion
to renew constructions in West Bank settlements after a
temporary ten months freeze ending on September 26.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton and US special envoy to the Middle East
George Mitchell joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and Abbas in the direct talks on Tuesday.

"Today the parties have begun a serious discussion on
core issues," the US special envoy said adding, "President
Abbas and Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu also reiterated
their intent to approach these negotiations in good faith and
with a seriousness of purpose."

Negotiations would continue tomorrow in Jerusalem with
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton`s participation, and
Israeli and Palestinians teams would meet again "in the coming
days" ahead of further talks at the leadership level, Mitchell

Palestine has been repeatedly saying that lifting the
moratorium on West Bank building activities would mark the end
of deliberations between the two sides and a close aide to the
PA President emphasised the same.

"Choosing to continue with settlements in any form
means destroying the negotiations," chief Palestinian
negotiator Saeb Erekat said ahead of the day`s first meeting.

Palestinians have argued that the settlements built on
land they want for a state would deny them a viable and
contiguous country.

"We are all striving to bring the message to Netanyahu
that the settlements issue is important to negotiations and
for us there cannot be any talks on ending occupation while
occupation is deepening," another Palestinian negotiator,
Nabil Shaath, said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s government
is overwhelmingly dependent on its right wing coalition
partners, majority of whom have threatened to walk out if the
government tries to extend the freeze on building activities
in the West Bank.

Acknowledging the issue, US Middle East envoy George
Mitchell said that he has also asked the Palestinians to take
steps to reassure the Israelis.

The US envoy said that Washington was aware "this is a
politically sensitive issue in Israel" and the United States
also had called on Abbas to "take steps that help, encourage
and facilitate this [peace] process."

He said that the leaders` conversation had touched on
the "core issues" borders, Palestinian refugees and the
status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

There were wide differences between the two sides over
the content of the talks with Israel pushing for an initial
focus on security and a formal end to the decades-old conflict
through mutual recognition, but with the Palestinians
insisting on moving to the core issues immediately.

Mitchell said that despite their disagreements, both
Netanyahu and Abbas remained committed to the year-long
timetable for a peace deal laid out when talks began in
Washington in early September.

The sides "negotiated in good faith" and confirmed
their vision of the end goal of "two states for two peoples",
he said.