Israeli and Palestinian leaders grappled with issues at the heart of their conflict as they met at an Egyptian resort for a second round of peace negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas picked up today where they left off Sept. 2 in Washington and plan to continue the talks tomorrow in Jerusalem, George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy supervising the negotiations, told reporters.
“Today the parties have begun a serious discussion on core issues,” Mitchell said after the two leaders held a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that lasted almost two hours at a hotel overlooking the Red Sea in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He declined to give details of what was discussed.
Clouding the talks is the Sept. 26 expiration of a temporary halt Netanyahu declared on West Bank settlement building, which President Barack Obama asked him last week to extend. Abbas has said he will abandon talks if construction resumes. Netanyahu has said there has been no change in plans to let the freeze expire.
“We continue our efforts to make progress and we believe we are moving in the right direction overall,” Mitchell said, when asked if there was movement on extending the settlement freeze.
The core issues include the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, security arrangements for Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
“Our position is still the same, which is that negotiations and settlements cannot go side by side,” Nabil Shaath, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team in Sharm el-Sheikh, said in a telephone interview. “We cannot have negotiations going on while more land is being stolen.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Netanyahu, Abbas and Clinton met for a second time later in the day for more discussions.
“We cannot speak of a breakthrough after one meeting,” Aboul Gheit said.
Abbas and Netanyahu have agreed to meet every two weeks for a year to reach a framework agreement leading to a formal peace settlement. Obama said at a news conference Sept. 10 that he told the Israeli premier “it makes sense to extend that moratorium.”
Clinton on Thursday travels to Jordan, where she will have lunch with King Abdullah before departing for the U.S. Mitchell will travel to Syria after the talks close, according to a U.S. official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about Mitchell’s schedule.
En route to the talks yesterday, Clinton told reporters that the U.S. wants the construction halt extended. She also urged the Israelis and Palestinians to focus on the larger goal of a comprehensive peace.
If the issue of borders and territory were settled, Clinton said, it would “eliminate the debate about settlements because some areas would be inside Israel and some areas would not be inside Israel.”
One option being considered by Israel is to use administrative means to keep the freeze in place without formally announcing an extension.
Because Defense Ministry permission is required for building in the territory Israel captured from Jordan in 1967, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has the authority to block construction in the West Bank by withholding approval. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Israel’s negotiating strategy is secret, said Netanyahu is considering such a de facto freeze.
Netanyahu told Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair on Sept. 12 that after the moratorium ends Israel won’t build all of the tens of thousands of homes in various stages of approval, said an official familiar with the conversation, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“If there’s not some type of settlement moratorium, even partial, it will be a major blow to the process and the Obama administration,” said Scott Lasensky, who co-wrote a book called “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace” with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. “Given that this is the Middle East, there will probably be some brinkmanship” in reaching a compromise.
Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 embryonic settlements, which Israel calls outposts, have sprung up during the past decade. The United Nations says that settlements are illegal and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. Obama has said they aren’t legitimate.
Israel says settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.
Netanyahu declared the moratorium last November in a bid to restart peace talks, which were frozen for 20 months after Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip it said was aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets at its southern towns and cities. He said housing construction would be stopped for 10 months in West Bank settlements, excluding some 3,000 homes that already received government approval, as well as some public buildings.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Sharm el-Sheikh via Tel Aviv at email@example.com; Nicole Gaouette in Sharm el-Sheikh at firstname.lastname@example.org; Alaa Shahine in Sharm el-Sheikh at email@example.com.