, WASHINGTON, Sep 13 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to the Middle East Monday to nudge along fledgling peace talks that face a first test with the looming expiration of an Israeli settlement freeze.
US President Barack Obama called Friday on Israel to extend the partial freeze that expires September 26 while he pledged his administration would remain deeply engaged in the new negotiations.
As a sign of active and high-level US participation, the chief US diplomat, accompanied by Middle East envoy George Mitchell, will attend talks Tuesday in Egypt\’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem on Wednesday.
The visit follows a flare up of violence Sunday when Israeli tank fire killed three Palestinians at the flashpoint border with Gaza after a rocket attack claimed by militants, according to medics.
Clinton will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whom she hosted in Washington on September 3 for the launch of the first direct peace talks in 20 months.
Robert Danin, a former deputy US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, expected settlements to be a "key issue" during the second round of talks.
"The number one challenge is getting some resolution on the settlement moratorium expiration because without a resolution of that, then everything they\’ve launched could come to nought," Danin told AFP.
And Danin, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, believed that "both Israel and the Palestinians are actually digging themselves into very hard, entrenched positions" on the settlements.
Israeli officials have indicated that they will not extend the freeze as is, but the Palestinians have warned that they would break off the new talks if settlement building continues on occupied land.
Danin doubted the issue would be resolved during Clinton\’s visit, adding more intense talks on settlements could take place if Abbas and Netanyahu meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in the last week of September.
"This issue is likely to be a white knuckler that will go down to the wire," Danin said.
But he said there is "room for continued hope" now that the talks appeared to have got off to a good start.
Recalling the launch, Obama told a press conference Friday that Netanyahu and Abbas came to the White House "with a sense of purpose and seriousness and cordiality that frankly exceeded lots of people\’s expectations."
He underlined that the two leaders affirmed the goal of creating two states living side-by-side and agreed to hold negotiations roughly every two weeks.
The new US-sponsored negotiations aim to settle in one year the core issues of security for Israel, the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jerusalem.
Marina Ottaway, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told AFP that the crucial meetings will not be those this coming week but those coinciding with the moratorium deadline.
"It\’s only at that point that I think there could be a real danger of a sudden collapse of the talks," she warned, adding the upcoming meetings will be more about setting the agenda for negotiations.
But she said the upcoming talks might explore suggestions on how to "fudge" the issue of settlements in a way that keeps the negotiations safe.
Ottaway said she is interested to learn whether the Clinton-led team play the role of observer in the talks or whether they become more directly involved.
Will there be, for example, "any attempt to set forth suggestions of how to proceed and so on," she wondered.
In his press conference, Obama said his administration will encourage and facilitate the negotiations, even though the parties must ultimately decide their own future.
Refusing to accept failure, Obama pledged: "If these talks break down, we\’re going to keep on trying."