US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Egypt yesterday urging Israel and the Palestinians to find ways to clear the “hurdle” posed by a looming expiration of a freeze on Jewish settlements.
The settlements issue could stall the new peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who were to meet Clinton in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Before she holds the second round of negotiations that she launched on Sept. 2 in Washington, Clinton was due to meet here privately with Netanyahu and Abbas as well as with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key mediator.
On her way to Egypt from Washington, Clinton repeated US President Barack Obama’s call on Friday for Israel to extend the 10-month moratorium on settlements that is due to expire on Sept. 26.
However, the chief US diplomat did not rule out a deal between the two sides that would result in something short of an extension of the moratorium on West Bank settlements.
“This has to be understood as an effort by both the prime minister [Netanyahu] and the president [Abbas] to get over a hurdle posed by the expiration of the original moratorium in order to continue negotiations,” she said.
In Washington, Clinton’s spokesman Philip Crowley also alluded to creative solutions.
“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,” Crowley added.
The Palestinians have warned that if the moratorium is not extended, the negotiations that were launched on Sept. 2 in Washington could come to a complete halt.
Yesterday’s talks were to have tackled the negotiation agenda with Netanyahu reportedly wanting to first address future security arrangements and secure Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
However, Palestinians want to first define the borders of a future Palestinian state, address the status of Jerusalem and discuss right of return of refugees who in 1948 fled or were driven out of what is now Israel.
Clinton was also due to hold three-way talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem.
During the flight to Egypt, Clinton said the “time was ripe” for a solution to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“If you listen to both leaders, they recognize time is not on either of their sides,” she said.
Netanyahu, she said, has made it clear that Israel faces severe security challenges as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian-backed Hamas acquire more dangerous missiles and rockets.
As for Abbas, she said he has long called for a two-state solution, but must prove to the Palestinian people he can achieve the goal through negotiations rather than armed resistance.
When Clinton launched the direct talks two weeks ago, both sides agreed to resolve within a year the core issues of Israeli security, borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu has embraced a two-state solution, but has shown no sign on yielding on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state.