Settlement issue looms over second round of direct talks
A second round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resumes in Egypt on Tuesday as continuing tensions over Israeli settlements threaten to scuttle progress.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Egypt Tuesday for the resumption of US-led Mideast talks, saying that the “time is ripe” for peace in the region.
But with an expiration of a freeze on Jewish settlements looming, Clinton urged Israel and the Palestinians to overcome the "hurdle” of this longstanding sticking point and not let the new talks be derailed.
Before direct talks kick off in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday, Clinton is due to meet privately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, as well as with mediator President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Settlement issues ‘a threatening obstacle’
On her way to the region, Clinton reiterated US President Barack Obama's call on Friday for Israel to extend the 10-month moratorium on settlements that is due to expire on September 26.
FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Gallagher Fenwick, said settlements were “undoubtedly a threatening obstacle” that would be “impossible to overcome without some compromise on both sides”.
The Palestinians, for their part, have said that if the settlement freeze is not extended, the negotiations that were launched on September 2 in Washington could come to a stop.
But Clinton emphasised that the settlements were only one of a handful of key issues in talks, and that other topics could provide areas of agreement.
“Remember the goal is to work towards agreement on core issues like borders and territory that would, if agreed upon, eliminate the debate about settlements," Clinton said while en route to Egypt.
Clinton's spokesman Philip Crowley echoed Clinton’s suggestion that inventive solutions would be needed to move things forward: "We're in a critical window the next two to three weeks where we hope that the parties will come prepared to continue to engage constructively, show some creativity in terms of how to navigate through some difficult and challenging and emotional issues", he said.
Priorities and sticking points
For Israel, the most pressing of those issues are pushing for a demilitarised Palestinian state and securing Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Palestinians first want to establish the borders of a future Palestinian state, discuss the status of Jerusalem, and address the right of return for refugees who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state that would be in the West Bank and Gaza. Though Netanyahu has endorsed a two-state solution, he has not budged on the question of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, the right of return is considered one of the thorniest sticking points, as Israeli officials have long contended that this would eliminate the Jewish majority.
When Clinton launched direct talks two weeks ago, both sides agreed to resolve those issues within a year.
Clinton has framed the talks by striking a tone of urgency. "If you listen to both leaders, they recognize time is not on either of their sides," she said.
She noted Netanyahu’s security concerns as Iranian-backed groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza acquire more dangerous missiles and rockets.
She also mentioned that Abbas must prove to the Palestinian people that he can achieve a two-state solution through negotiations rather than armed resistance.
Though Clinton has expressed optimism that the new peace talks could result in a deal, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Jerusalem Gallagher Fenwick said the mood is different on the ground. According to Fenwick, people in the region are aware of the various pressures, both public and private, that often seem to have prevented their leaders from finding lasting solutions.
“Both leaders have to manage their camps back at home, but they also want to avoid taking responsibility for derailing the talks”, Fenwick explained. “That’s why people on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides are not that interested or enthusiastic about these talks”.