Intense US efforts fail to break Mideast deadlock
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday in a bid to reignite deadlocked Mideast talks. Israeli settlements loom as key sticking point.
AFP - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will meet for a second day of talks Saturday, after failing to break the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians.
Clinton has sought to use her clout to bring renewed impetus to the flagging peace process, and has persuaded the two sides to go back to the negotiating table for the first time after a 20-month hiatus.
But the talks are overshadowed by the end of an Israeli moratorium on settlement building, with the Palestinians threatening to walk out of the fledgling peace talks if it is allowed to expire as planned on Sunday.
The pair met in New York on Friday after US officials bluntly told both the Israelis and Palestinians not to wreck the fledgling peace negotiations.
Abbas had earlier rejected an Israeli suggestion that a compromise may be possible ahead of the scheduled end of the moratorium.
"Our efforts will continue," Clinton spokesman Philip Crowley said after Abbas and the chief US diplomat met for 25 minutes on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
"Nothing new until now," Abbas told AFP after emerging from his evening meeting with Clinton, noting the two would meet again on Saturday.
Abbas advisor Nabil Abu Rudeina said: "We're discussing American efforts about the continuation of the negotiations."
A senior Israeli government official said the Jewish state was willing to cut a deal acceptable to the United States and the Palestinians, after US President Barack Obama's call for the moratorium to be extended.
But he also stressed that "there cannot be zero construction" in West Bank settlements, a compromise Abbas rejected as a "partial solution."
"A total freeze must be maintained on settlement activity in the Palestinian territories, including in Jerusalem," Abu Rudeina said, adding that Abbas rejected any compromise that does not guarantee a "complete halt" to all settlement activity.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman echoed a toughening US line toward both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"At this point, we are urging both sides to create the atmosphere that is most conducive to a successful conclusion to the negotiations," he said.
"We don't think either side should be using the threat to walk out, to interrupt the process."
He acknowledged the discussions "are pretty intense right now" as Washington tries to keep the negotiations on track.
Arab League chief Amr Mussa, in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, told reporters that Israel must show a readiness to extend the freeze if the peace talks are to continue.
Obama on Thursday firmly urged Israel to extend the moratorium. On the same day, he issued a passionate call at the UN General Assembly for the world to back his peace drive.
On Friday, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Israelis and Palestinians to do all they can to sustain the direct peace talks.
The previous round of direct negotiations collapsed when Israel launched a devastating military offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in December 2008.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not appear to have made any progress towards narrowing their differences during talks last week in Egypt and in Jerusalem attended by Clinton.
US officials have suggested a three-month extension to the moratorium, during which the two sides could agree on borders, which could neutralize the settlements dispute, a senior Palestinian official said.
Abbas told AFP this week he was "not opposed to a settlement freeze for a month or two."
The international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, to be illegal.
Some 500,000 Israelis live in more than 120 Jewish settlements across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories expected to form the bulk of a future Palestinian state.
Israel captured Arab east Jerusalem in 1967, and considers the city its "eternal and indivisible" capital.
Another core issue that has eluded six decades of peacemaking efforts is Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians want Israel to recognize the "right of return" of those who fled or were expelled when the Jewish state was created in 1948. With their descendants, they number 4.7 million people.
Israel rejects the demand.
US-backed Abbas and his secular Palestinian party Fatah only control the West Bank since the Islamist movement Hamas routed out his forces from the Gaza Strip in 2007.
The two movements have been deadly enemies ever since, but on Friday, Fatah and Hamas leaders held reconciliation talks in Damascus and said they wanted the discussions to continue.