US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Thursday after he renewed his threat to quit peace talks in a row over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The meeting follows two days of inconclusive peace talks with Israel overshadowed by the impending expiry of a partial halt to settlement construction later this month that threatens to derail the negotiations.
Abbas had met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Clinton on Wednesday for another round of direct peace talks that sought to address the core issues of the decades-old conflict.
But he warned that if the partial ban on new settlement construction is not extended at the end of the month he will walk out of the negotiations, which were relaunched on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus.
Netanyahu has refused to renew the moratorium but hinted he would rein in building after US President Barack Obama urged him to extend the restrictions.
A senior Palestinian official who asked not to be named said Netanyahu told Abbas on Wednesday that settlements “will continue,” causing Abbas to respond: “If settlement construction continues, I will stop negotiations.”
US envoy George Mitchell meanwhile said late Wednesday that the two-day talks in Egypt and Jerusalem had been “serious and substantive” and that they had made “progress” on the issue of settlements. He did not elaborate.
He also said the two leaders again tackled the issues at the heart of the conflict — Israel’s security, the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
“The two leaders are not leaving the tough issues to the end of the process,” Mitchell told reporters.
“We take this as a strong indicator that peace is possible and of their desire to conclude an agreement.”
Clinton had earlier expressed a similar view, saying: “This is the time and these are the leaders, and the United States will stand by them as they make difficult decisions.”
In opening the three-way meeting, Netanyahu said: “It’s a lot of work. I’m glad to have the opportunity to welcome President Abbas and Secretary Clinton here pursuing peace, and I think we should get on with it.”
Throughout the day, Clinton held a series of closed-door meetings with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who strongly opposes any extension of the moratorium.
But observers noted that the friendly handshakes concealed serious differences on the same core disputes that have bedevilled such talks for nearly two decades.
“Outside everyone was smiling, and Mahmud Abbas got a Palestinian flag in the prime minister’s residence, but inside things were much colder,” a commentator for Israeli military radio said.
Mitchell said the two sides agreed on Wednesday to have their negotiators meet again next week to pave the way for another meeting of the leaders.
The US envoy was set to hold talks in Damascus on Thursday with President Bashar al-Assad aimed at reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks, while Clinton was to hold talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman later.