Netanyahu to Abbas: Don't Let End of Settlement Freeze Foil Peace Talks

Prime Minister considering trip to U.S. on Saturday for summit organized by Bill Clinton at which Abbas will also be present; Netanyahu would meet with Obama after summit.

The United States has stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resolve the crisis over the looming end of the settlement freeze. During talks between the two leaders with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday, a number of ideas were raised in an effort to achieve a breakthrough.

Abbas is scheduled to visit Jerusalem Wednesday afternoon for direct talks at the Prime Minister's official residence in the city. This will be the first such meeting in the capital since Netanyahu's took office last year.

Abbas and Netanyahu will first meet with Clinton and U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, and then they will hold a private meeting.

Neither side offered much information on Tuesday about what is expected during the meeting between the two leaders today.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina gave a statement saying that the negotiations were very serious but the issue of settlements constitutes an obstacle to peace.

Netanyahu is considering traveling to New York Saturday after the end of the Yom Kippur holiday to attend a summit being organized by former President Bill Clinton at the United Nations. Abbas is also scheduled to attend the meeting, which will be held in parallel with the UN General Assembly meeting.

If Netanyahu travels to the U.S. he will also visit American President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday or Tuesday.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit went a step further on Tuesday when he said that Egypt, the Palestinians and the international community see no point in continuing direct talks if central obstacles to the process exist.

"And the settlements are in our view an obstacle," Aboul Gheit said at a press conference from Sinai.

The Egyptian foreign minister added that the negotiations are focused on the issue of borders and any agreement will be based on determining these borders.

He said that following a deal, each side would be able to do whatever it pleases with the territory that will be under its control, possibly hinting that if the future borders of a Palestinian state are agreed on, then it would be possible to allow construction in settlement areas that will remain under Israel's control.

The near media blackout followed tensions after Israel complained that the Palestinians were violating agreements reached earlier on controlling leaks to the press and avoiding inflammatory statements.

During the preparatory work in Washington D.C. two weeks ago, the two sides had signed a "code of behavior" agreeing that negotiations would remain secret. It was also agreed that the two sides would avoid the "blame game."

However, in recent days Netanyahu and his aides complained about the many interviews given by members of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat and Nabil Sha'ath. The two are rivals to lead the negotiations among the Palestinians, and leaked details of the preparatory talks, including news of a meeting that was expected to take place last week in Jericho. Due to the leak the meeting was canceled by Israel.

"The briefings [to the international media] are not even remotely discreet," complained a senior aide to Netanyahu. "They spoke against us on record to the media. We, on the other hand, are showing restraint and discretion, and are very careful in an effort not to undermine the talks."

Netanyahu raised the issue during his meeting with Clinton and asked that the Palestinian fall in line with the agreements, something which he later told Abbas during a meeting.

Sources said the talks on Tuesday were intensive. Netanyahu met immediately after arriving at Sharm el-Sheikh with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and then held a meeting with Clinton. The two were then joined by Abbas and Mitchell.

After a meeting of one hour and forty minutes, there was a lunch break, which was hosted by the Egyptian leader.

An unscheduled meeting of the four, which lasted another hour, followed the lunch. Also in the meeting were negotiators Yitzhak Molcho and Saeb Erekat.

A senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu had made it clear to Abbas that the settlement freeze will come to an end as scheduled on September 26 and will not be extended.

However, the prime minister said that construction will be limited and will not exceed that which was carried out under the tenure of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, with whom Abbas held direct talks.

"The end of the settlement freeze must not be allowed to foil the talks," Netanyahu told Abbas. "We have taken on an ambitious mission of reaching agreement within a year and we must focus on that."

Among the ideas for achieving a breakthrough on the issue of the settlement freeze was to hold intensive talks on the question of borders for a future Palestinian state and setting a three month deadline for agreement. In return the Palestinians would agree to continue the talks despite a return to building in the West Bank.

Mitchell, who refused to give details on the content of the talks, said that there was also discussion of the core issues of a future permanent settlement, describing the atmosphere as "serious" and the talks as "detailed."

The two leaders instructed Erekat and Molcho to arrange another meeting in the coming days, prior to the end of the settlement moratorium.