PM to present ideas for overcoming freeze hurdle in Sharm

Atmosphere of uncertainty lingers over first round of talks; Netanyahu looking to convince US his compromise is reasonable; PA showing no flexibility.

Netanyahu reassures (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Netanyahu reassures
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to present his ideas for resolving the settlement construction moratorium issue during meetings in Sharm e-Sheikh on Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, US Secretary Hillary Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Netanyahu convened a meeting of his senior cabinet ministers, the forum known as the “septet,” on Monday to formulate policy in advance of the Sharm meeting.
RELATED:'Peace talks will fail if West Bank construction resumes'Analysis: The PA's mixed messages about peace talksThe meeting in the Sinai resort is expected to be more business-like, and less ceremonial, than the official relaunch of the talks in Washington two weeks ago. While there were two ceremonial meetings between the leaders that were open to the press in Washington, there will be no ceremonies, joint statements or press conferences in Sharm.
Netanyahu is expected to hold a bilateral meeting with Mubarak, followed by one with Clinton, and then a trilateral meeting with Abbas and Clinton. Mubarak will then meet them for lunch.
Tuesday’s meetings are taking place in an atmosphere of uncertainty, since the Palestinians have said that they will walk away from the negotiations if the government does not extend its 10-month settlement construction freeze that expires at the end of the month, and Netanyahu has said that while the end of the moratorium will not be met by a massive building boom in the settlements, he does not intend to extend the freeze, and building for natural growth will continue.
One official said Netanyahu’s true challenge is to convince the Americans that his proposal to build quietly, along the parameters of construction that took place under the previous government when it was engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians, is a reasonable demand. If the Americans accept the proposal, the Palestinians will have little choice but to do so as well, the official said.
The Palestinians, however, are showing no flexibility on the matter, with chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat saying that a refusal to stop the construction would lead to the failure of the entire peace process.
“Peace and settlements are two parallel lines that don’t meet,” Erekat said shortly before heading to Egypt. “It’s time for Israel to realize this fact.”
Erekat claimed that the Palestinians and Israel have already agreed on the agenda of the talks that, he added, will continue for 12 months.
He said the agenda includes all the core issues, among them Jerusalem, refugees, borders, water, security and settlements.
The Palestinian negotiator said the Palestinians were going to the negotiations with the hope that the peace process would result in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.
He also expressed hope that the talks would lead to a solution to the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and agreement to release all the Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Erekat revealed that Mubarak has sent separate messages to the US administration and the Israeli government demanding an end to settlement construction “so as to give peace a chance.”
While the overall agenda may have been agreed upon, there is still disagreement about the sequencing of what will be discussed. While the Palestinians want borders and settlements to be dealt with first, Israel wants security issues to top the agenda, arguing that borders cannot be set until it is clear what security guarantees will be put in place.
Netanyahu has also signaled in recent days that he will make Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people a key issue early on, saying that only with this recognition will Israel have confidence that any accord will truly lead to an end to the conflict and all claims against it.
The team Netanyahu is taking to Sharm is made up of both veterans who have been involved in previous rounds of negotiations, and those for whom these direct talks will be their first serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
Among the veterans are Netanyahu’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Molcho, and his national security adviser, Uzi Arad, who served under the prime minister during his first term in office and were involved in talks with Yasser Arafat that led to the Wye and Hebron accords.
Another veteran Israeli negotiator is the Foreign Ministry’s Daniel Taub, who took part in the negotiations between then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and the PLO’s Ahmed Qurei.
The two members of the Israeli team relatively new at this are Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior adviser, and the prime minister’s military attaché, Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker.
Although neither has taken part in previous rounds of negotiations, both have been closely involved in the efforts to restart these direct talks.
Clinton, meanwhile, left Washington on Monday to take part in the negotiations. In addition to her participation in the direct talks, she will also hold a bilateral meeting with Mubarak.
On Wednesday, she will meet with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, before travelling to Ramallah on Thursday to meet with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah.
She will also go to Amman to confer with Jordanian King Abdullah.
As of Monday it was unclear whether Netanyahu, Abbas and Clinton would hold a joint meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
A State Department official described Clinton’s participation in the talks as an example of the “active and sustained role” the US plans to play as part of “our efforts to achieve comprehensive Middle East peace.”
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who along with Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will be accompanying Clinton on her trip, will head to Syria on Thursday.
A State Department official referred to the “brief stopover” in Damascus as being held “to update senior Syrian officials on the status of Israeli- Palestinian peace talks.”
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.