September 15, 2010
Militants launched mortar shells into Israel and Israeli jets bombed targets in Gaza on Wednesday, just as Israeli and Palestinian leaders held peace talks in Jerusalem with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gaza militants opposed to peace with Israel have threatened to derail the fledgling negotiations, and the Israeli military said eight mortars and one rocket hit Israel by mid-afternoon on the day of the talks — the highest daily total since March 2009. There were no injuries.
Israeli warplanes responded by bombing a smuggling tunnel along the Gaza-Egypt border, the military said. Hamas officials said one person was killed and four wounded.
In Jerusalem, little more than an hour's drive from Gaza, Clinton said Israeli and Palestinian leaders were "getting down to business" on the major issues dividing them, though there was no sign they were any closer to resolving a looming crisis over Israeli West Bank settlements.
The American secretary of state was in Jerusalem for a second day of talks aimed in part at ending the impasse, a day after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit hosted by Egypt.
"They are getting down to business and they have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face-to-face negotiations," Clinton told reporters. "I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement that results in two states living side by side in peace and security."Abbas has threatened to walk out of the talks if Israel resumes construction in the settlements after a 10-month slowdown expires at the end of the month. Clinton and President Barack Obama have called on Netanyahu to extend the slowdown.
Netanyahu has signaled he is looking for a compromise. Earlier this week, he said the current curbs won't remain in place after the end of this month, though he will continue to restrict building activity to some extent.
The Palestinians oppose the settlements because they eat up land they want for their future state. Some 300,000 Israelis live scattered among the West Bank's 2.5 million Palestinians. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city the Palestinians claim as their capital.
President Barack Obama has made his pursuit of a Mideast settlement a centerpiece of his foreign policy. After months of U.S. shuttle diplomacy, he summoned the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington early this month to formally launch the first direct negotiations since talks collapsed in 2008 following Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Obama hopes to forge a deal within a year.
Negotiators will have to tackle a series of issues that have undermined talks in the past: the location of the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the competing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.
But they will have a hard time addressing those disputes if they cannot resolve the disagreement on the settlement slowdown.
Under intense international pressure, Netanyahu declared curbs on West Bank settlement construction last November, seeking to draw the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. At the time the Palestinians dismissed the move as insignificant, an irony Clinton pointed out ahead of Tuesday's talks in Egypt.
"Now we're told that negotiations cannot continue unless something that was viewed as being inadequate continues," she said.The slowdown is set to expire on Sept. 26, and Netanyahu is being pressed by many of his religious and nationalist allies in Israel's coalition government to resume construction. Members of his own Likud Party have taken out ads in Israeli dailies in recent days demanding an end to the slowdown.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas share a common enemy: Hamas. The Islamic group took over Gaza in 2007 after ousting Abbas' forces, and it has threatened to unleash new violence as the peace talks move forward.
Following Wednesday's airstrike, Hamas said its security forces had evacuated their installations in preparation for further Israeli retaliation.
A senior Israeli military officer forecast further violence in the coming days.
The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said Hamas has become increasingly involved in the violence, turning a blind eye to the attacks and occasionally giving its permission to "proxies" to carry out violence.
Hamas has largely refrained from directly carrying out attacks since a devastating Israeli offensive early last year, and has at times even reined in other armed groups from attacking. But with the resumption of peace talks, the militant group has threatened to change its policy.
Early this week, the head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency warned that Hamas would try to torpedo the new talks, and when negotiations were officially launched early this month, Hamas militants killed four Israelis in the West Bank.
September 16, 2010
Two days of Mideast peace talks appear to have brought Israel and the Palestinians closer to a deal that would allow those talks to continue, but even if the negotiations move forward far more difficult issues lay ahead.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak suggested a compromise over Israel's plan to lift its partial ban on construction on the West Bank later this month, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday he sees no alternative to continuing negotiations in search of peace with Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Amman, said she is convinced that Netanyahu and Abbas are trying to seek common ground.
"They are committed and they have begun to grapple with the hard but necessary questions," she said, shortly before leaving for the U.S. "I am convinced that this is the time and these are the leaders to achieve the result we all seek."Abbas' comments came as Israel was coming under increasing pressure to extend its curb on Jewish settlement construction, and aides to the Palestinian leader suggested there might be movement toward a compromise on that issue.
Abbas had said previously that the talks could not survive if the Israeli building restrictions were lifted as planned.
"We all know there is no alternative to peace through negotiations, so we have no alternative other than to continue these efforts," Abbas said Thursday, speaking through an interpreter in Ramallah, where the headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority is located.It was unclear from Abbas' remarks whether he was signaling that the Palestinians would remain committed to the talks even if Israel does not extend the limits on building.
Egypt's leader said in a radio interview that he urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the restrictions for three more months to give peacemaking a chance.
Mubarak said he told Netanyahu the delay could give the two sides time to draft their future borders. After those lines are agreed, Mubarak reasoned, Israel can build within its future borders and the Palestinians within theirs.
In comments to Israel's Channel 10 before she left the region, Clinton said for the first time that the U.S. would back a limited extension of the partial construction moratorium, calling the idea "extremely useful."
"I don't think a limited extension would undermine the process going forward if there were a decision agreed to by both parties," she said.Netanyahu's office said Thursday that Israel doesn't plan to extend the current limits, which are due to expire in late September.
But Israeli officials said they hoped to reach a compromise well before the current restrictions expire on Sept. 26 in hopes of avoiding a major crisis. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no formal decisions have been made.
Aides to Abbas said no deal had been reached on the settlement issue, but said they accept Mubarak's proposal and expect that a compromise will be found. Previously, the Palestinians have said they would walk out on the talks if any construction resumes.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter.
Michele Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Thursday the talks appear to have edged the process forward, although bigger challenges lay ahead.
The discussions in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem "got the talks rolling toward a possible compromise on the settlements moratorium issue, which probably will be reached over the next week or so," she said. "But once again the parties are spending weeks dealing with a short-term issue to avert a crisis rather than getting down to the larger problems."On Thursday, Clinton and Abbas met at the Palestinian Authority's West Bank headquarters.
Abbas thanked the Obama administration for its efforts to broker the current talks, the first in two years.
"I know that this time is difficult and the circumstances are difficult, but the Americans are exerting active efforts to achieve this peace," he said.Later, Clinton traveled to Amman for lunch with Jordan's King Abdullah, whose country already has a peace treaty with Israel and is a strong supporter of efforts to work out a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Dates for the next round of top-level negotiations are supposed to be determined during consultations next week.
Gaza militants opposed to the peace efforts have sent mortars and rockets crashing into southern Israeli communities in recent days, drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.
Overnight, Israeli aircraft hit two Gaza targets that the military described as weapons storage facilities. No casualties were reported.
Palestinian official Raed Fattouh, who coordinates the flow of goods into Gaza with Israel, said the Israeli military also canceled plans to let new cars enter Gaza on Thursday for the first time in four years. The Israeli military had no immediate confirmation.
George Mitchell, the Obama administration's envoy for Middle East peace, traveled to Syria on Thursday for talks with President Bashar Assad and the Syrian foreign minister about starting a separate Syria-Israel peace negotiation.
He told reporters the U.S. administration was determined to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
"It is true that the parties still have profound differences ... but we are determined to see it through," he said.