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Mideast Leaders Still Seek ‘Breakthrough’ in Settlement Dispute

Mideast Leaders Still Seek ‘Breakthrough’
President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photographer: Thaer Ganaim /PPO via Getty Images

Israeli and Palestinian leaders will resume efforts to defuse a dispute over settlement building today in Jerusalem after talks in Egypt overseen by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed little sign of resolving the issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, following yesterday’s talks at Egypt’s resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said. Clinton has been trying to persuade Netanyahu to extend a partial moratorium on building homes in the West Bank.

“We continue our efforts to make progress and we believe we are moving in the right direction overall,” Mitchell said at a news conference yesterday, when asked if there was movement on keeping settlement construction frozen. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: “We cannot speak of a breakthrough after one meeting.”

Abbas has said he will abandon talks if construction resumes after the 10-month limited moratorium Netanyahu declared in November expires. The Israeli leader has said there has been no change in plans to let the freeze lapse on Sept. 26.

Forging a compromise on the construction moratorium is the “first key test for the future of the peace talks,” said David Makovsky, who directs the project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington and is co-author with Dennis Ross of the book, “Myths, Illusions and Peace.”

U.S. Leverage

“Nobody wants to be blamed for the breakdown of the talks and nobody can walk out on the U.S.,” Makovsky said in response to a question by e-mail. “This gives Secretary of State Clinton leverage as she seeks a resolution.”

Clinton will start the day by meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, officials said. Abbas and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet in the afternoon, according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office. Tomorrow, Clinton travels to Jordan, where she will have lunch with King Abdullah before departing for the U.S.

Mitchell will travel to Syria and Lebanon after the talks close, according to State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley.

The peace talks, the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in more than 20 months, began in Washington earlier this month.

Knottiest Issues

The U.S. envoy gave few details about yesterday’s meeting in Egypt aside from saying that some of the knottiest issues facing Israel and the Palestinians were discussed.

Mitchell said Abbas and Netanyahu “have begun a serious discussion on core issues” in the Middle East conflict, while refusing to say which ones.

“With respect to the core issues, I’m not going to attempt to identify each one that was discussed, but several were, in a very serious, detailed, and extensive discussion,” Mitchell said in response to a question.

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. Abbas and Netanyahu have agreed to meet every two weeks for a year to reach a framework agreement leading to a formal peace settlement.

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.

Settlement Building

Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 small 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 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.

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