SHARM E-SHEIKH – The
second round of direct Israel-Palestinian talks ended in this Egyptian
resort Tuesday without any visible movement on the contentious
settlement construction moratorium issue, but with US envoy George
Mitchell saying the sides were still determined to reach a framework
peace agreement within a year.
Toward that end, Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who spent dozens of hours negotiating
in the prime minister's official Jerusalem residence on Rehov Balfour
when Ehud Olmert was premier, will return there Wednesday for the first
time in over two years and continue his talks with Prime Minister
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It was not clear Tuesday evening, however, whether
Wednesday’s meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas would be private, or
would include US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton was in the
room each of the three times Netanyahu and Abbas met in Sharm on
Those discussions began inauspiciously, with senior
Israeli government officials en route to the meetings expressing thinly
veiled annoyance at the Palestinians’ continual threats to bolt the
talks over the settlement moratorium issue.
But they ended on an
upbeat note when an additional, unplanned meeting was added at the end
of the day between Netanyahu and his chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho,
Abbas and his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Clinton and Mitchell.
officials said that last meeting was “substantive,” and meant to lay
the groundwork for meetings of the negotiating teams, which are expected
to meet in the coming days to prepare for another round of meetings by
the leaders, likely in some two weeks’ time.
Mitchell, at a press
conference in Sharm, said in slightly upbeat tones that the sides have
begun to tackle the “core issues” in a serious and extensive manner,
though he declined to define which ones were being addressed.
Netanyahu, Abbas nor their aides made any statements after Tuesday’s
meeting. Mitchell said that the sides agreed that in order for the talks
to succeed, they would have to be kept “strictly confidential.”
officials expressed satisfaction that this time, unlike the talks in
Washington earlier in the month, the discussions ended without the
Palestinians leaking information or making statements.
One of the
issues that Netanyahu and Abbas still need to defuse has to do with
whether the settlement construction moratorium, which ends on September
26, will be extended.
Although Mitchell reiterated the US
position that Washington thinks the freeze should be extended,
“especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive
direction,” Israeli officials gave no indications of Netanyahu’s plans.
gave no sign that the US accepts an idea Netanyahu has articulated in
recent days regarding going back to the level of building in the
territories that existed when Olmert was prime minister and negotiations
“Our position on settlements is well known and
remains unchanged. This administration’s policy is the same as the
policy of previous administrations, Democratic and Republican,” he said.
“As President Obama said just recently, we think it makes sense to
extend the moratorium.”
Looking for ways out of this dilemma, the
US reportedly asked Netanyahu to either extend the freeze or give some
other proof of his seriousness, such as committing to finalizing the
border issue within three months.
Netanyahu reportedly balked at this idea, while the Palestinians accepted it.
Israel’s position is that the issue of borders cannot be dealt with
until security issues are finalized, since the final border will be
dependent on what kind of security arrangements are instituted.
In the same breath that Mitchell called for an extension of the
moratorium, he also – as Obama did in comments last Friday – said the US
was aware that this is a “politically sensitive” issue, and called on
Abbas to “take steps that help and facilitate this process.”
But while Mitchell was explicit that the US thought the moratorium
should be extended, he was less so regarding the US position on whether
the PA needed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
“We have said many times that our vision is for a twostate solution that
includes a Jewish, democratic State of Israel living side by side in
peace and security with a viable, independent, sovereign, and contiguous
state of Palestine,” he said.
“But of course, this is one of many sensitive issues that the parties
will need to resolve themselves, and that is the point of negotiations.
The parties will reach agreement on all major issues.”
Neither Mitchell nor Clinton, when asked about this matter on her way to
Sharm, would say what steps the US was looking for from the
In addition to meeting Netanyahu and Abbas in Jerusalem on Wednesday,
Clinton is also scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman,
who has articulated opposition to the current process, and Defense
Minister Ehud Barak.
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