Standoff over settlement construction bogs down Mideast talks
Despite prodding by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Israelis and Palestinians made little progress Tuesday toward resolving their standoff over Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. The dispute will continue to loom over U.S.-brokered peace talks as they resume Wednesday in Jerusalem.
For the third time in a week, American officials called upon Israel to extend its partial moratorium on construction, which is to expire toward the end of the month. Palestinians have threatened to quit the talks unless the moratorium continues.
“We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium, especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction,” U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell said Tuesday after a round of talks in the Egyptian seaside town of Sharm el Sheik. “We know this is a politically sensitive issue in Israel.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from right-wing parties in his coalition government to end the 10-month freeze and allow full construction to resume on land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East War.
Though Netanyahu had said he opposed extending the current freeze, which prevents ground breaking for new homes, he hinted for the first time over the weekend that he was open to a compromise, such as another limited freeze.
Palestinian negotiators showed no sign Tuesday of softening their position.
“Choosing to continue with settlements in any form means destroying the negotiations,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israeli journalists Tuesday.
Though U.S. officials supported the extension of the partial moratorium, they also signaled that they expected Palestinians to remain at the negotiating table either way. President Obama has invested considerable time and effort in the renewed talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which started early this month and include participation by Egypt and Jordan.
“We’ve also called on President Abbas to take steps that help encourage and facilitate this process,” Mitchell said. “We believe both sides have a responsibility to help ensure that these talks continue in a constructive manner.”
As she arrived in Egypt on Monday night, Clinton called for both sides to find common ground, warning of unpredictable “consequences” if peace talks were to collapse.
Israeli officials expressed frustration over what they called the Palestinians’ “all-or-nothing” position, complaining that Palestinians had not previously made a settlement freeze a condition for peace talks.
Nevertheless, one Israeli official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, expressed confidence that a compromise would be reached and “no one will be walking away from the negotiating table.”
Mitchell declined to comment on what issues were discussed during Tuesday’s talks between Netanyahu and Abbas, who were expected to meet again Wednesday in Jerusalem. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators also declined to comment on specifics, though they confirmed that the settlement issue was discussed.
When pressed about whether any progress had been made on the settlement dispute, Mitchell expressed optimism.
“We continue our efforts to make progress,” he said, “and we believe that we are moving in the right direction, overall.”
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said a resolution would require “creativity and flexibility.”
Most Israelis, however, don’t share his high hopes, according to a poll published Tuesday in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot. More than 70% of respondents said they did not believe the current negotiations would yield a peace agreement and most believed Netanyahu and Abbas were participating only because of heavy U.S. pressure, according to the poll.
After Wednesday’s meetings, Mitchell is expected to travel to Lebanon and Syria to seek broader support for the peace process, officials said.
Richter reported from Sharm el Sheik and Sanders from Jerusalem.