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Israeli Settlements Key Issue in Latest Mideast Peace Talks

September 17, 2010 at 5:49 PM EDT
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The second round of the latest Middle East peace talks took place this week in Egypt and Jerusalem between Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas with Israeli settlements remaining a big diplomatic hurdle. Jeffrey Brown gets an update from Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was round two this week in a whirlwind of negotiations over several days around the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met face to face in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and in Jerusalem.

They were joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who later fanned out for meetings in Jordan and Syria. The big diplomatic hurdle so far is whether the Israelis will extend a temporary freeze on building new settlements.

For an update on the talks, we go to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, who returned with the secretary to Washington early this morning. Welcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: And early means real early, in fact.

GLENN KESSLER, The Washington Post: Yes, very early.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, welcome back.

Start with the moratorium on settlements. It comes to an end at the end of the month. What is the situation now? And what are the outstanding questions? And where do things stand?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, the situation right now is that the moratorium has been in place for 10 months.

This is something that Netanyahu put in place under U.S. pressure. And the idea at the time was the talks would begin almost immediately, and, then, after 10 months, if they had been succeeding, the U.S. would have hoped that Israel would have extended it. But, instead, the Palestinians wouldn’t come immediately to the table. The talks have just started. And now you have this situation where the Israelis are saying, we have had it for 10 months. You know, time’s up. We want to move on.

And the Palestinians, who were at first were very critical that the moratorium wasn’t extensive enough, now want it to continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they have said that they may not come — they may continue negotiating unless it continues.

GLENN KESSLER: That’s right. That has been their position. What the Americans have been trying to do is to get enough momentum going in these last few days so that Mahmoud Abbas feels comfortable enough with Netanyahu that he is willing to swallow a partial extension, a modified extension, something that allows each man to say that they have won something, because, of course, Netanyahu faces real pressure from the right-wingers in his coalition to let the thing lapse.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the potential compromise here is a limited extension; is that the idea?

GLENN KESSLER: Exactly. That is what the Americans have suggested. That is what with the Egyptians have suggested. And the idea is that the first thing that the two sides would tackle are borders, because, if you decide that this is part is going to be Palestine and that part is going to be Israel, then the settlement issue becomes less important, because everybody knows that some of those settlements would become part of Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean, that leads to the main question here. To what extent have they gotten to some of these tough issues, the ones that have been out there for a long time, borders, security, status of Jerusalem, et cetera?

Do we know how much they have tackled those kinds of issues?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, the word is, is that they have tackled those issues.

I mean, I’m a little skeptical, just because it’s only been a few days. But the — the — what officials have said is that, particularly on the second day of talks this week at the prime’s residence in Jerusalem, that the two men sat together, with both, basically, Mitchell and Clinton relatively silent. They sat together and they really delved deeply in some of these issues.

It’s not a question of negotiating, but it was more that they got past their talking points and they kind of laid out their positions and put their cards on the table. And maybe Netanyahu is trying to demonstrate to Abbas: I’m really serious. And you can feel — trust me that we can get somewhere here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your sense of the — what we can call the atmospherics sometimes, though, is that there is an intensity in seriousness up to these talks.

GLENN KESSLER: That is — that is — yes, that is the sense that at least U.S. officials and Israeli officials and Palestinian officials are trying to give, that, even though it’s been relatively soon — it’s relatively quick in the process, even though there is great skepticism that these will even amount to a hill of beans, that, so far, they’re not just dancing around; they’re actually talking turkey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about the role of the Americans at this point?

When President Obama and Secretary Clinton early on said that they were — they were — they didn’t want to be mediators — their idea was to bring these two — the two parties together and let them go at it. What do we know about their role so far, the American role, that is?

GLENN KESSLER: My understanding is that the American role is more as a comfort zone for both parties. I think, at the residence, most of the discussion was between Netanyahu and Abbas, with Clinton and Mitchell sitting there, occasionally interjecting, but not interfering with their discussion, because, ultimately, it’s those two men who have to make the deal.

But the United States provides a comfort level for the Israelis, that their interest will be protected, for the Palestinians, that they will — they are this tiny, little, small party here. So, the Americans provide a security blanket for them.

And, ultimately, because the gaps are so large, it will probably come to the United States to offer bridging proposals, compromises, that sort of thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean, so, ultimately is my final question here — not, ultimately, but what’s next? They have not set a date for round three, right, for direct talks? What do you know?

GLENN KESSLER: That’s right. They’re supposed to meet every two weeks.This coming week, the Jewish holiday is going on. But this coming week, the lower-level negotiators are supposed to hash out some of these issues. Presumably, the following week, the two men would meet. It’s not anticipated that Mitchell and Clinton are going to be there every time they meet, but that they get a process going.

But, the — all — you know, everyone — the funny thing about this process is that everyone knows what — more or less, what the final agreement is going to look like. It’s just a question of getting them to that point.

JEFFREY BROWN: That hasn’t changed for a long time.

GLENN KESSLER: No. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s still to get to that point.

GLENN KESSLER: Right, and then implement it, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Glenn Kessler, thanks. Thanks very much.

GLENN KESSLER: You’re welcome.