By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 11:02 PM
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, making her first plunge into Middle East peacemaking, said she will prod Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week to press forward with talks, even with the Israeli moratorium on settlements expiring this month.
"The United States believes the moratorium should be extended," Clinton told reporters on Monday as she flew here from Ireland for the first round of formal talks. "At the same time, we recognize an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and Palestinians on actions that could be taken by both sides, that would enable the negotiations to continue, would be in the best interests of both sides."
Last week, President Obama called on Israel to extend the moratorium. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that it would lapse, but he also indicated that construction of new settlements would be limited when the 10-month moratorium expires on Sept. 26. But Palestinian leaders have warned that renewed construction on Palestinian lands will kill the nascent talks, launched early this month in Washington.
Clinton said both sides could take actions, symbolic or otherwise, to make it easier for the other to ease back from its current stance because there are bigger issues at stake. "There is no prospect for success in the absence of direct negotiations," she said. "For me, this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state."
Clinton and other U.S. officials have refused to identify any ideas they are bringing to the table to bridge the settlement disagreement, but there are symbolic actions that either side could take. The Palestinians could signal acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, perhaps using language recently offered by Netanyahu of a "homeland for the Jewish people, a homeland for the Palestinian people."
Similarly, the Israelis could agree to put defining the border at the top of the agenda, which would have the benefit of quickly identifying what settlements Israel might expect to keep in a peace deal.
The administration had hoped that direct talks would have begun when the moratorium was announced, making it more difficult to let the ban lapse. Now U.S. officials are scrambling to keep the talks going past the initial phase.
Clinton noted that when she embraced as "unprecedented" Netanyahu's moratorium last year, the statement "was summarily criticized, roundly and consistently by everyone in the region, and I, too, took my share of the criticism for having said what was the fact." Now, she said with some bemusement, the moratorium has assumed outsize importance, to the detriment of the larger goal of the talks.
For Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "this is a moment of great opportunity as well as challenges," she said.
Clinton planned to meet with the parties Tuesday in this Egyptian resort city, then continue the talks on Wednesday and Thursday in Jerusalem and in Ramallah on the West Bank.