Before Mideast talks, Clinton says ‘time is ripe’

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepared to meet on Tuesday in this Egyptian resort, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the “time is ripe” for Mideast peace.

The most immediate dispute between the two sides surrounds a soon-to-expire curb on new construction for Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

The Palestinians want the curb extended beyond the current Sept. 26 deadline, but Netanyahu has suggested at least some of the restraints will be lifted.

Clinton said on Monday the Obama administration believes Israel should extend the moratorium, but she also said it would take an effort by both sides to find a way around the problem.

“We recognize that an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and the Palestinians … that would enable the negotiations to continue is in the best interests of both sides,” she said.

Clinton spoke with reporters on Monday during a flight from Washington to Egypt for the latest round of the current Mideast peace talks, which began earlier this month in Washington.

After her arrival early Tuesday, she met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The settlement freeze is not the only wrinkle in the way of launching the talks in earnest. The two sides are bickering over what to discuss first: security or borders.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said late Monday that the agenda for the talks had been agreed upon in Washington.

“The agenda includes final status issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees, security and prisoners,” he told reporters. “If you want to pick the right path, borders should come first. If you don’t want to reach (an agreement) pick some other paths.”

A senior Abbas aide, Mohammed Ishtayeh, appeared to take a hard line on the issue of settlement construction, telling reporters in Sharm-el-Sheikh Tuesday that an Israeli extension of its partial freeze would not signal progress in the negotiations but rather progress in “confidence building.”

“The freeze on settlements (construction) is not a topic in the negotiations,” he said. “Removing settlements is.”