SHARM EL-SHEIKH - The United States called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders met on Tuesday for a second round of face-to-face peace talks.
"We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium," said U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell following the summit in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu convened later in the day for an unexpected set of talks, this time with top aides present, after the first session broke for lunch.
Asides to the prime minister said the day's meetings were "positive and productive" and dealt with issues pertaining to the settlement freeze and to a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.
Mitchell said negotiations would continue Wednesday in Jerusalem with Clinton's participation and Israeli and Palestinians teams would meet again "in the coming days" ahead of further talks at the leadership level.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is expected to travel to Damascus tomorrow according to Arab media networks to update the leadership there on the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and to discuss ways in which Syria could contribute to the talks.
"Today the parties have begun a serious discussion on core issues," Mitchell said. "President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu also reiterated their intent to approach these negotiations in good faith and with a seriousness of purpose."
Under international pressure, Israel in late 2009 declared a 10-month freeze on settlement building - excluding East Jerusalem. But that is due to expire in late September and the Palestinians have repeatedly vowed to walk out if building resumes.
"Choosing to continue with settlements in any form means destroying the negotiations," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said ahead of the day's first meeting.
Palestinians say the settlements, built on land they want for a state, would deny them a viable and contiguous country. "We are all striving to bring the message to Netanyahu that the settlements issue is important to negotiations and for us there cannot be any talks on ending occupation while occupation is deepening," another Palestinian negotiator, Nabil Shaath, said.
At a post-summit press conference, Mitchell acknowledged that it would be hard for Netanyahu, whose right-wing coalition opposes the freeze, to compromise, but said he had also urged the Palestinians to take steps to reassure the Israelis.
Mitchell said the leaders' conversation had touched on the "core issues" – borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
Echoing U.S. President Barack Obama's position, Mitchell said: "We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction."
Mitchell said Washington was aware "this is a politically sensitive issue in Israel" and the United States also had called on Abbas to "take steps that help, encourage and facilitate this [peace] process."
Before Tuesday's talks, set to continue on Wednesday in Jerusalem, there had been tension over the content of negotiations, with Israel pushing for an initial focus on security and a formal end to the decades-old conflict through mutual recognition, but with the Palestinians insisting on moving to the core issues immediately.
Mitchell said that despite their disagreements, both Netanyahu and Abbas remained committed to the year-long timetable for a peace deal laid out when talks began in Washington in early September.
The sides "negotiated in good faith" and confirmed their vision of the end goal of "two states for two peoples", Mitchell said.
Yet as Netanyahu and Abbas negotiated behind closed doors, it emerged in Israel that Jerusalem city planners would in the coming weeks discuss a scheme to build over a thousand Jewish housing units beyond the Green Line.
On October 7, the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee will discuss plans for 1,362 new homes in Givat Hamatos, between the suburbs of Talpiot and Gilo.
Although Givat Hamatos is not covered by the freeze, which excludes East Jerusalem, the timing of the debate could have significant diplomatic consequences.
In April, an Israeli announcement of plans for 1,600 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo coincided with a visit to the country by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, leading to a high-profile row between Israel and the United States.
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