US Says Talks Progress as Palestinians Threaten Walkout

JERUSALEM

The United States said Israeli and Palestinian leaders moved on Wednesday toward resolving their row over settlements but the Palestinians kept up the threat to walk out of the new peace talks.

In negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas were having a “serious and substantive” discussion, US envoy George Mitchell said.

The three met in Jerusalem after similar discussions in Egypt on Tuesday, which also focused on the core issues of the conflict as well as the expiry of a partial settlement moratorium at the end of this month.

“We continue to, in our efforts, to make progress in that regard and believe that we are doing so,” Mitchell told reporters when asked about the issue of settlements, but he did not elaborate.

Abbas has warned that if the partial settlement freeze is not extended he will walk out of the negotiations, which were relaunched earlier this month after a 20-month hiatus.

Netanyahu has refused to renew the moratorium, which concludes at the end of the month, but hinted he would rein in settlement construction after US President Barack Obama urged him to renew the restrictions.

And a senior Palestinian official who asked not to be named said Netanyahu told Abbas Wednesday that settlements “will continue,” causing Abbas to respond: “If settlement construction continues, I will stop negotiations.”

Mitchell said the two leaders again tackled the issues at the heart of their decades-old conflict: Israel’s security, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

“The two leaders are not leaving the tough issues to the end of the process,” Mitchell told reporters as Netanyahu and Abbas held hours of talks at the prime minister’s residence.

“They are tackling up front the issues that are at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

“We take this as a strong indicator that peace is possible and of their desire to conclude an agreement,” he added.

Clinton expressed a similar view after a morning meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement…. This is the time and these are the leaders, and the United States will stand by them as they make difficult decisions,” the chief US diplomat said.

In opening the three-way meeting, Netanyahu said: “It’s a lot of work. I’m glad to have the opportunity to welcome President Abbas and Secretary Clinton here pursuing peace, and I think we should get on with it.”

Throughout the day, Clinton held a series of closed-door meetings with senior officials including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who strongly opposes any continuation of the settlement freeze, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad.

Following the Jerusalem talks, Mitchell said he will fly to Syria for a meeting Thursday with President Bashar al-Assad aimed at reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

Mitchell also said the two sides agreed on Wednesday to have their negotiators meet again next week to pave the way for another meeting of the leaders.

Hours after Clinton arrived in Israel late on Tuesday, Palestinian militants fired a rocket at the southern port city of Ashkelon, followed by mortar fire. The attacks, which caused no casualties, were claimed by the Popular Resistance Committees, a small militant group opposed to the talks.

In response, the Israeli air force bombed targets in southern Gaza, killing one Palestinian and wounding another two.

The violence underscored the potential for an explosive confrontation with Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza who vehemently oppose the peace talks.

Hamas was the target of Israel’s devastating 22-day offensive over the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009 that cost the lives of 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

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