West Bank settlements loom as Mideast peace talks head for Jerusalem

Adding a day of talks in Jerusalem is thought to demonstrate the seriousness of the Mideast peace talks between Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas. A moratorium on West Bank settlement construction expires Sept. 26.

Jim Young/Reuters
Mideast peace talks: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on at the State Department in Washington September 2.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will shift renewed Mideast peace talks back to the region next week when the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority meet in Egypt as announced at last week’s re-launch of direct negotiations.

But in a symbolic move aimed at demonstrating the seriousness of the renewed peace process, the three key players in the talks – Secretary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – are now set to meet for additional talks in Jerusalem. Israel claims an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, but the Palestinians also claim Arab East Jerusalem as the rightful capital of a future Palestinian state.

At the formal restart of direct peace talks in Washington last week, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed their first order of business in the renewed negotiations would be to come up with a “framework agreement” setting down the key points of a peace accord on which both sides will have to make tough compromises. Jerusalem is expected to be one of those difficult core issues.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas are to resume their talks Sept. 14 in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. On the following day, the talks will shift to Jerusalem. The plan sketched out in Washington last week is for the two sides to meet approximately every two weeks after that, with the goal of reaching a peace accord within a year.

The plan to hold a day of talks in Jerusalem with Clinton present is seen by some Mideast analysts as a concession to Netanyahu, who has a tough political decision to make before the end of September if the talks are to continue into October. The Israeli government’s partial moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank is about to expire, but Abbas continues to warn that he will walk out of the talks if the moratorium is not extended.

“The Israelis always want the Palestinians to negotiate in Jerusalem, they want the recognition that comes with having this level of talks there,” says Sam Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel and an adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, a group of experts promoting avenues to regional peace. “It could be that this is one way of paying [Netanyahu] for a very difficult decision he has to make and giving him something to show his cabinet.”

Israel’s 10-month settlement moratorium ends Sept. 26, with most of the Israeli government opposing an extension of the freeze.

“The important point here is that if they don’t finesse this Sept. 26 deadline, it’s not going to matter where they talk,” Mr. Lewis says. Noting that many regional analysts, including some on the Israeli left, now consider Netanyahu a sincere peacemaker, Lewis says any failure of the talks over the moratorium issue could sink the prime minister’s newly minted image.

“Some people out there are saying [Netanyahu] is following the advice to ‘sound like you want to make peace, and let the Palestinians screw it up,’” he says. “This moratorium issue poses a real problem for him.”

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