WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is shepherding Mideast talks this week that she says may be the last chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the region, planned to be in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for talks Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
They’re scheduled to shift to Jerusalem for a second day of talks Wednesday, and it’s likely that Obama will resume negotiations with Abbas and Netanyahu in New York the following week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
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. However, Netanyahu said Sunday that the current restrictions would indeed be lifted – he rejected a total freeze on construction – but he added that there would be some limits.
Obama also said he’s told Abbas that if he shows he’s serious about negotiating, it will give political maneuvering room for Netanyahu on the settlement issue. Abbas knows “the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing,” Obama said.
Clinton’s task, Obama said, is to get the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to “start thinking about how can they help the other succeed, as opposed to how do they figure out a way for the other to fail.”
Previewing the upcoming talks, Clinton said “there is a certain momentum” after an initial round in Washington on Sept. 2, which marked the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in nearly two years.
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 that the longer 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.
Michele Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it appears the talks will go nowhere until the two sides, with Clinton’s help, can find a solution to the settlements issue.
“That’s probably going to have to be the first item on the agenda,” she said in a telephone interview. “The first priority is to make sure that the talks don’t collapse at the end of September.”