US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed Monday to the Middle East urging both Israel and the Palestinians to find ways to clear the "hurdle" posed by a looming expiration on the Jewish settlement construction moratorium.
Flying to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Clinton repeated US President Barack Obama's call on Friday for Israel to extend the 10-month moratorium on settlements that is due to expire on September 26.
But she left the door open to creative solutions, urging both sides to make reciprocal gestures that would maintain the momentum in the direct negotiations that were launched in Washington on September 2.
Clinton was due to hold the second round of negotiations in Egypt with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. She was also to meet President Mubarak of Egypt, a key Arab mediator.
"We believe that the moratorium should be extended," the chief US diplomat told reporters before her plane landed in Shannon, Ireland for refuelling.
"At the same time we recognize 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.
'A lot of ways to achieve goal'The Palestinians have warned that if the moratorium is not extended, the negotiations could come to a complete halt.
Clinton laughed aloud at what she saw as the irony of the Arabs sharply criticizing her late last year when, during a trip to Jerusalem, she praised as "unprecedented" the partial moratorium on settlements that Netayahu offered.
"I took my fair share of the criticism," the chief US diplomat said.
"It was an unprecedented decision by an Israeli government and now we're told that negotiations can't continue unless something that was viewed as being inadequate continues as well," 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," she said.
"Because some areas would be inside Israel and some areas would not be," she said.
'Time not on either side'Clinton refused to discuss specific steps each side might take to boost the momentum in the negotiations.
"In the next two days, I think there will be a lot that will be discussed by both sides about what they need and about what they can offer to keep going," she said.
Besides Egypt, Clinton was due for talks with both leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Clinton said "time was ripe" for a solution to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"If you listen to both leaders, they recognize time is not on either of their sides," she said.
Netanyahu, she said, has made it clear that Israel faces severe security challenges as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian-backed Hamas acquire more dangerous missiles and rockets.
As for Abbas, she said he has long called for a two-state solution but must prove to the Palestinian people he can achieve the goal through negotiations rather than armed resistance.
When Clinton brokered the launch of direct negotiations on September 3 in Washington, both sides agreed to resolve within a year the core issues of Israeli security, 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 on yielding on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
Ynet learned that despite threats made by senior Palestinian Authority officials to quit the talks if the building freeze is not extended, the Palestinians in fact have decided not make such a move should construction in the large settlement blocks resume. However, the PA has asked the US to respond firmly to cases in which Israel builds outside these areas.
In talks on Tuesday, Netanyahu will place two main demands on the table. The first is that any agreement struck between the parties represent an end to the conflict and an end of Palestinian demands placed on Israel. He will also demand that Israel's security be ensured and that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, a matter that has already received significant opposition among senior PA leaders.
Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report
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