Meetings Hint at Progress in Israeli Peace Talks
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WASHINGTON -- In a marathon day of meetings in New York on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton worked to salvage peace negotiations that stalled last month over Israel's refusal to extend a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.
Neither American nor Israeli officials offered details of the talks, although a blandly worded joint statement issued afterward made clear that there had been no breakthroughs.
Still, the length of the meetings -- seven hours, including at least two hours in which Mr. Netanyahu and Mrs. Clinton met alone in a suite at the Loews Regency Hotel -- suggested the two sides sensed an opportunity to break the deadlock that has stalled the negotiations since last month.
Mr. Netanyahu had allocated two hours for the discussions, according to Israeli officials, and scrapped plans to hold a news conference when he and Mrs. Clinton decided to invite their aides to join the discussions.
The talks came after a turbulent week in which President Obama criticized Israel for announcing new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, saying it was not helpful to the peace process. Mr. Netanyahu's office responded defiantly, saying, "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of the State of Israel."
Mrs. Clinton reiterated Mr. Obama's criticism a day later, calling Israel's housing plans "counterproductive." But as she sat down Thursday with Mr. Netanyahu, she said she believed that he and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, were committed to an accord.
Mr. Netanyahu said he hoped to broaden an agreement "to many Arab states." Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli officials said, has put a lot of emphasis on Israel's security needs, pushing for American guarantees on issues like a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan River Valley.
While the statement issued after the meeting recapitulated familiar positions, analysts zeroed in on two passages, which they said may hint at the direction of the peace negotiations. In the first, Mrs. Clinton reiterated the "unshakable" American commitment to Israel's security.
In the second, she spoke of an agreement that "reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."
Mr. Netanyahu has made Israel's security the cornerstone of any agreement, saying that his government cannot allow a Palestinian state to become a staging ground for rocket attacks.
Mrs. Clinton's explicit endorsement of this principle suggests there will be strong American backing for Mr. Netanyahu's concerns, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator who is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"They're well on the way to persuading him that if he buys into this, he will have a peace process that will bear the Netanyahu signature," Mr. Miller said. "This may be the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations."
Whether the Palestinians return to the bargaining table hinges on whether the two sides can resolve an impasse over Jewish settlements. Israel has declined to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on building that expired in September; the Palestinians have refused to resume discussions unless it does.
There was no indication whether the United States had persuaded Israel to compromise.
First Published November 12, 2010 2:00 am