JERUSALEM (AFP) – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to hold further talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem on Wednesday in a bid to break the deadlock over Jewish settlements.
The three were to meet in the early evening a day after holding hours of discussions in Egypt which focused on the core issues of the conflict as well as the expiry of a partial settlement moratorium later this month.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has warned that if the moratorium is not extended, he will walk out of the negotiations, which were relaunched earlier this month after a 20-month hiatus.
(L-R) US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh September 14. AFP
As well as the three-way talks, set to take place at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence at 1500 GMT, Clinton will hold a series of talks with top Israeli officials -- including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has repeatedly opposed any continuation of the settlement freeze.
The US secretary of state met President Shimon Peres early on Wednesday ahead of talks with Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad.
Shortly after Clinton landed in Israel late on Tuesday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket and two mortar rounds into southern Israel, in what has become a near daily occurrence over the past week.
No one was wounded, but the attacks underscored the potential for a violent confrontation with Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, who are vehemently opposed to the renewed peace talks.
US envoy George Mitchell said on Tuesday that the sides "began a serious discussion on core issues" -- Israel's security, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
And a senior US official hailed what he called "the seriousness and sincerity of the leaders to reach an agreement, to resolve these issues."
But with only two weeks until the end of the freeze, the standoff over Israeli settlement building loomed large over Wednesday's agenda.
"The American administration is demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offer a compromise formula about the construction freeze -- one that would both fall short of sparking the wrath of the right wing and at the same time serve as a gesture to the Palestinians," Israel's Maariv daily said.
It went on to say that if the formula was accepted by the Americans, then Clinton and Mitchell would "apply pressure" on the Palestinian president to go along with it.
In a sign of the seriousness of the efforts to reach some kind of compromise, Netanyahu was expected to travel to Washington at the weekend for another round of talks with US President Barack Obama, Israeli media reported.
The reports were not confirmed by officials in Netanyahu's office.
Little visible progress was made on the settlement issue on Tuesday, with US envoy George Mitchell telling reporters only that "we believe that we are moving in the right direction overall."
Tuesday's talks were believed to have focused on the agenda for the negotiations. Netanyahu reportedly wants to focus on future security arrangements and secure Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
But the Palestinians want to define the borders of their future state, which could neutralise the settlements issue by demarcating where Israel can build.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Netanyahu was seeking to quickly negotiate an agreement that would be implemented over a long period.
Following the Jerusalem talks, Mitchell is expected to fly to Syria for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday, the US embassy in Damascus said.
Mitchell's visit is aimed at reviving Syria's talks with Israel, a senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.