With pressure mounting to extend its freeze on settlements, Israel is searching for suitable middle ground that could bring both Washington and the Palestinians on board. The latest round of direct U.S.-mediated talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, which began in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on Tuesday, was carried forward on Wednesday at the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Wednesday visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Jerusalem that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had begun to “grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face to face negotiations”.
In his comments at the end of talks held in Egypt, U.S. Special Envoy on West Asia George Mitchell said “it makes sense to extend the moratorium [on settlements]”. Israel's ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank — Palestinian territory occupied by Israel during the course of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — ends on September 30. The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks in case this moratorium is not extended. They have also insisted that negotiations on the borders of a future Palestinian state should be given top priority during on-going talks, which also cover other core issues such as the status of East Jerusalem, the right to return of Palestinians displaced by the wars of 1948 and 1967, as well as security.
According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, one of the ideas to resolve the settlement issue that cropped up during talks was to set a three-month deadline to achieve a breakthrough on borders. In return, the Palestinians should pledge not to disrupt the dialogue even if construction activity in the West Bank resumed. The Israelis have so far refused to extend the building freeze, but have said that fresh construction in the West Bank would be restrained.
With a breakthrough on settlements still out of grasp, Mr. Netanyahu may visit the United States next week and seek President Barack Obama's personal intervention to resolve the settlement problem.
Mr. Mitchell said during his Tuesday press conference that the two leaders were convinced that they could reach a deal within a one-year timeframe.
The U.S. envoy would later this week, head for talks in Syria and Lebanon. Analysts say that Mr. Mitchell's upcoming visit is highly significant as Syria hosts in exile the Palestinian Hamas, which has, so far, rejected the current round of talks. Damascus can, therefore, play a crucial role in reaching out to the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, a coastal stretch which would be the economic lifeline of a future Palestinian State.