SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that the "time is ripe" for Mideast peace, but that without face-to-face talks Israel can't expect lasting security and the Palestinians can't create an independent state.
Clinton spoke with reporters Monday during a flight from Washington to Egypt for the latest round of the current Mideast peace talks, which began earlier this month. She arrived in Egypt early Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to meet Tuesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh before shifting their talks to Jerusalem on Wednesday. Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, plan to join the talks.
Obama has framed Clinton's task for this week's meetings as an effort to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to focus on how each can help the other succeed rather than figuring out a way for the other to fail.
But the most immediate dispute surrounds a soon-to-expire curb on new construction for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The Palestinians want the curb extended beyond the current Sept. 26 deadline, but Netanyahu has suggested at least some of the restraints will be lifted.
Clinton said Monday the Obama administration believes Israel should extend the moratorium, but she also said it would take an effort by both sides to find a way around the problem.
"We recognize that an agreement that could be forged between the Israelis and the Palestinians ... that would enable the negotiations to continue is in the best interests of both sides," she said.
Obama increased the pressure last week, saying Friday that he had urged Netanyahu to extend the partial moratorium as long as talks were making progress.
Obama also said he'd told Abbas that if he showed he's serious about negotiating, it would give political maneuvering room to Netanyahu on the settlement issue. Abbas knows "the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing," Obama said.
On Sunday, Netanyahu seemed to reject a total freeze on construction, saying a Palestinian demand for no construction will not happen. He said Israel will not build thousands of planned homes, but without providing details or a timeline added, "We will not freeze the lives of the residents."
The Palestinians, meanwhile, insist that Israel must extend the moratorium.
The chief Palestinian negotiator said Monday there are no "half solutions" in the dispute over construction of Israeli settlements.
"Either there is a halt to settlement building or there is not," Saeb Erekat told reporters in Sharm el-Sheikh. "We hope that if the Israeli government is given the choice of either peace or settlements, it will choose peace. If it chooses any kind of settlement building, this means that it has destroyed the whole peace process and it would be fully responsible for that."
Although some analysts caution that any peace deal faces daunting obstacles, Clinton has said an initial round of talks in Washington on Sept. 2 generated some momentum. They were the first face-to-face talks between the two sides in nearly two years.
In an appearance last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton was asked why the pessimists are wrong.
"I think they're wrong because I think that both sides and both leaders recognize that there may not ever be another chance," she said.
The "last chance" notion is based in part on the knowledge that Abbas is living on borrowed time, in a political sense. His electoral mandate expired in 2009 and he fears a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, which is supposed to make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state.
Time is a motivating factor for the Israelis, too. Some Israelis believe the longer Israel occupies the West Bank and its growing Arab population, the more Israel's future as a Jewish state is imperiled. Creating a sovereign Palestine would get Israel out of the occupation business.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have argued that the conflict begets hatred and suspicion of the U.S. as Israel's principal ally.
Obama wants a deal within a year; Israelis and Palestianians alike are deeply skeptical after decades of failed efforts.