Mideast peace talks forecast: Cloudy, occasional outbursts

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 13, 2010 

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are set to resume Tuesday in Egypt amid rising tensions over Israeli settlement construction, a key issue in the talks and one that's prompted the Palestinian team to threaten to boycott the meetings.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will attend the mini-summit in this Red Sea resort town, hoping to generate momentum in the recently revived talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Clinton also is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally and powerful regional player who invited Israelis and Palestinians to convene in his country after an initial meeting Sept. 2 in Washington.

The U.S. administration, bedeviled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hopes to breathe new life into the peace negotiations, which have been stalled for nearly two years, and make good on President Barack Obama's promises to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

However, the fledgling talks may be short-lived if diplomats can't find a way around the standoff over settlements within two weeks.

Significant concessions on the issue could topple Netanyahu's coalition with right-wing parties, and he indicated Sunday that he wouldn't renew a moratorium on the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank after Sept. 26, when the 10-month freeze is due to expire.

Netanyahu reportedly suggested, however, that Israel would observe some limitations on new settlements in the area, which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.

Abbas' Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, still must reach a compromise with the militant Islamic group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Abbas' own mandate to govern expired last year, his popularity in the West Bank is diminishing and corruption is rampant in his party and government.

Hours ahead of the meetings Tuesday, members of Abbas' team, which arrived late Monday in Sharm el Sheik, reiterated threats to quit the talks if the settlement moratorium is lifted.

The Obama administration is pushing for a compromise on the settlements while trying to make enough headway on negotiations that it would be harder for Palestinians and Israelis to abandon them, according to senior U.S. and European diplomats.

The White House "is pushing for something substantive to be talked about this week, to give the impression of momentum," a senior European diplomat said. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss diplomatic strategy.

One possible compromise is for Israel to agree to build settlements only in areas of the West Bank that it would receive in an expected land swap with the Palestinians under a final peace deal. That, however, would require a tentative agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state, "and there's no way it'll be done" by Sept. 26, the diplomat said.

The Israeli group Peace Now, which opposes settlements, said Monday that more than 13,000 housing units could be built as soon as the moratorium ended later this month, without any additional permits from the government.

"This means that if the government decides on a de facto 'tacit freeze,' and commits not to approve new construction but without renewing the freeze order — the settlers can still build 13,000 housing units, 5,000 of which are in isolated settlements east of the separation barrier," Peace Now said in a statement on its website.

Experts agreed that the Palestinians have no choice but to attend the talks, if they're to have any hope of reaching a peace deal.

"If Mahmoud Abbas goes, he maybe, someday, will have a state. But if he doesn't go, he will never have one," said Mohamed Bassiouny, who served as Egypt's ambassador to Israel for two decades and now heads the foreign relations committee in the Egyptian parliament's upper chamber, the Shoura Council.

Other obstacles to a comprehensive peace deal include control of Jerusalem, whether generations of Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to homes in what's now Israel and security guarantees demanded by Israel. Netanyahu on Sunday reiterated his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a condition they've resisted thus far.

"The Palestinians' back is against a wall," said Nabil Abdelfattah, a researcher at Egypt's Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"I don't think the negotiation campaign will bear many fruits," Abdelfattah said.

(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)

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