SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt -- Convening a new round of negotiations Tuesday between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the "time is ripe" for a Mideast peace deal.
Clinton sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to tackle the most immediate dispute between the two sides: a soon-to-expire curb on new construction for Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The Palestinians want the curb extended beyond the current Sept. 26 deadline, but Netanyahu has suggested at least some of the restraints will be lifted.
Clinton said the Obama administration believes Israel should extend the moratorium, but she also said it would take an effort by both sides to find a way around the problem.
"We recognize that an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and the Palestinians ... that would enable the negotiations to continue is in the best interests of both sides," she said.
Clinton spoke with reporters Monday during a flight from Washington to Egypt for the latest round of the current Mideast peace talks, which began earlier this month in Washington. After her arrival early Tuesday, she met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before separate sit-downs with Abbas and Netanyahu.
The settlement freeze is not the only wrinkle in the way of launching the talks in earnest. The two sides are bickering over what to discuss first: security or borders.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said late Monday that the agenda for the talks had been agreed upon in Washington.
"The agenda includes final status issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees, security and prisoners," he told reporters. "If you want to pick the right path, borders should come first. If you don't want to reach (an agreement) pick some other paths."
A senior Abbas aide, Mohammed Ishtayeh, appeared to take a hard line on the issue of settlement construction, telling reporters in Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday that an Israeli extension of its partial freeze would not signal progress in the negotiations but rather progress in "confidence building."
"The freeze on settlements (construction) is not a topic in the negotiations," he said. "Removing settlements is."
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told reporters, "If the expectation is that only Israel has to show flexibility then that is not a prescription for a successful process."
On Sunday, Netanyahu seemed to reject a total freeze on construction, saying a Palestinian demand for no construction will not happen. He said Israel will not build thousands of planned homes, but without providing details or a timeline added, "We will not freeze the lives of the residents."
Clinton said in her in-flight remarks that if the negotiating agenda is sequenced correctly and pursued successfully, settlements could disappear as a central point of contention.
"There are a lot of ways to get to the goal. Remember, the goal is to work toward agreement on core issues like borders and territory that would, if agreed upon, eliminate the debate about settlements," she said.
Clinton recalled that when Netanyahu announced the partial moratorium nearly 10 months ago, it was widely attacked.
"It was summarily criticized, roundly and consistently, by everyone in the region," she said. "And I took my fair share of that criticism for saying what happened to be the fact: that it was an unprecedented decision by an Israeli government. And now we're told that negotiations cannot continue unless something that was viewed as being inadequate continues."
Although some analysts caution that any peace deal faces daunting obstacles, Clinton has said an initial round of talks in Washington on Sept. 2 generated some momentum. They were the first face-to-face talks between the two sides in nearly two years.
After Netanyahu and Abbas meet Tuesday in Sharm el-Sheikh, their talks shift to Jerusalem on Wednesday. Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the region, plan to join the talks.
In a poll published Tuesday in Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily, 71 percent of 501 Israelis polled by the Dahaf Research Institute said they doubted the latest round of talks would lead to an agreement.
Fifty-one percent said the restraints on West Bank construction should be lifted, while 39 percent said the slowdown should continue. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.