Clinton in Egypt for Mideast peace talks

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AFP) – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried on Tuesday to nudge along fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, seeking to prevent discord over Jewish settlements from derailing them.

On her first visit to the Middle East since she launched the new talks in Washington on September 2, Clinton was to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (R) meets with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on September 14, 2010. AFP

The chief US diplomat held a preparatory meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a Arab key mediator. She was then to meet separately with Netanyahu and Abbas ahead of three-way talks at 0900 GMT.

On her way to Egypt from Washington, Clinton repeated US President Barack Obama's call on Friday for Israel to extend the 10-month moratorium on settlement construction that is due to expire on September 26.

But she did not rule out a deal between the two sides that would result in something short of an extension of the partial freeze.

"At the same time we recognise that an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and the Palestinians on actions that would be taken by both sides that would enable the negotiations to continue is in the best interests of both sides," she said.

"This has to be understood as an effort by both the prime minister (Netanyahu) and the president (Abbas) to get over a hurdle posed by the expiration of the original moratorium in order to continue negotiations," she said.

"I think there's a lot of ways to get to the goal. Remember the goal is to work toward agreement on core issues like borders and territory that would, if agreed upon, eliminate the debate about settlements," Clinton said.

The Palestinians have warned that if the moratorium is not extended, the new peace talks could come to a complete halt.

But neither side wants to be blamed for the collapse of the talks.

"The prime minister is not looking to torpedo the negotiations, quite the opposite," a senior Israeli official told reporters shortly before Netanyahu set off from Jerusalem for Sharm el-Sheikh.

Tuesday's talks will also have to tackle the agenda for the negotiations with Netanyahu reportedly wanting to first address future security arrangements and secure Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

But the Palestinians want to first define the borders of a future Palestinian state, address the status of Jerusalem and discuss the right of return of refugees who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel in 1948.

The overwhelming issue is the looming end of the settlement freeze.

"The direct talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas begin with a poker game," an editorial in Israel's Haaretz newspaper said.

"On the table is the settlement freeze and the two players are raising the stakes ... Both players have a weak hand. Abbas can't embarrass Obama and bolt the talks and Netanyahu can't risk losing power.

"So the real question is not what will happen at the end of the freeze, but what Netayahu and Abbas will get in return for giving up their original positions," the paper said.

Clinton was also due to hold three-way talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem.

During the flight over, Clinton said the "time was ripe" for a solution to the decades-old middle East conflict.

"If you listen to both leaders, they recognise time is not on either of their sides," she said.

When Clinton launched the direct talks two weeks ago, both sides agreed to resolve within a year the core issues of Israeli security, the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu has embraced a two-state solution, but has shown no sign of yielding on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state.

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