WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's vague remarks on restricting new Israeli housing in the West Bank are the latest hurdle for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she flies to Egypt and Israel for the next round of Mideast peace talks.
Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, plan to be in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for talks Tuesday with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Clinton left Washington on Monday.
The leaders are scheduled to shift to Jerusalem for a second day of talks Wednesday. It's likely that President Barack Obama will resume negotiations with Abbas and Netanyahu in New York the following week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Obama has framed Clinton's task for this week's meetings as an effort to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to focus on how they can help the other succeed rather than figuring out a way for the other to fail.
But the most immediate obstacle for negotiators is a Palestinian demand that Israel extend a curb on new housing construction in the West Bank, a constraint that Israel says will expire Sept. 26. The Palestinians have insisted that without an extension, the peace talks will go nowhere.
Raising the pressure, Obama said Friday that he has urged Netanyahu to extend the partial moratorium as long as talks are making progress.
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."
Obama also said he's told Abbas that if he shows he's serious about negotiating, it will give political maneuvering room to Netanyahu on the settlement issue. Abbas knows "the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing," Obama said.
Previewing the upcoming talks, Clinton said there is some momentum after an initial round in Washington on Sept. 2, which marked the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in nearly two years.
In an appearance last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton was asked why those who see little chance of reaching a settlement in the one-year deadline Obama has set are wrong.
"I think they're wrong because I think that both sides and both leaders recognize that there may not ever be another chance," she replied.
The "last chance" notion is based in part on the knowledge that Abbas is living on borrowed time, in a political sense. His electoral mandate expired in 2009 and he fears a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, which is supposed to make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state.
Time is a motivating factor for the Israelis, too. Some Israelis believe the longer that Israel occupies the West Bank and its growing Arab population, the more Israel's future as a Jewish state is imperiled. Creating a sovereign Palestine would get Israel out of the occupation business.
More broadly, the status quo is a drag on U.S. interests. The wars and grievances that flowed from Israel's 1948 founding as a Jewish state have divided the Middle East, and U.S. officials have argued that the conflict begets hatred and suspicion of the U.S. as Israel's principal ally.
Obama wants a deal within a year; Israelis are deeply skeptical after decades of failed efforts.
One concern of all the parties to the talks is Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that refuses to negotiate and opposes Israel's very existence. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which is supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state along with most of the West Bank.
State Department: http://www.state.gov/p/nea/index.htm
Clinton's Council on Foreign Relations speech: http://tinyurl.com/29yeusq