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Clinton Calls Mideast Talks 'Moment of Great Opportunity'

Secretary Clinton is joining Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt for a second round of direct peace talks

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are in the Egyptian Sinai resort town, Sharm el-Sheikh, for the second round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks -- the first being held in the region after the formal opening in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who flew from Washington to join the talks, calls it a "moment of great opportunity" for the two parties.

Clinton says she hopes the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, and the one that follows it, Wednesday in Jerusalem, will build on the "positive atmosphere" of the opening session at the State Department, earlier this month.

The secretary will meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas here before a trilateral discussion aimed at what she calls "getting down to business" in the first direct talks between the sides in two years.

In a talk with reporters traveling with her from Washington, Clinton said she is fully aware of the obstacles to a two-state settlement of the Middle East conflict.

But she says she believes that the "time is ripe" for an agreement for a number of reasons and that there is no way that the legitimate needs of the parties can be fulfilled outside of a peace accord.

"It does seem to me that, for both of these men, this is a moment of great opportunity as well as challenge. And, what we are trying to do is to encourage them to pursue this chance for peace this year, because neither of them can predict the consequences, if this effort does not continue forward," she said.

Clinton reiterated comments by President Barack Obama, last week, that the United States would like to see Mr. Netanyahu extend the Israeli moratorium on most West Bank settlement building, due to expire September 26th.

She suggests that she and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, also participating here, will defer to the parties themselves on issues of substance, although she is prepared to offering bridging ideas, if needed.

"Our goal has been to help create an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiations and to request and encourage each party not to do anything that would interfere with the continuity of those negotiations. So I think in the next two days there will be a lot that will be discussed by both sides about what they need, or what they can offer to keep going," she said.

Mr. Abbas and his team are understood to be interested in an early agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state, which Clinton says would have the benefit of ending the argument about which settlements would remain in Israeli hands.

She says she thinks both leaders realize that prolonged stalemate is in neither side's best interest and that the current opportunity must be seized.

"For me this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state. Negotiations at least hold out the potential for reaching an agreement that both parties have pledged that they wish to pursue, despite the difficulties that they face from both within and without," she said.

Clinton meets Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak here, in advance of the talks, and concludes her brief Middle East visit Thursday, with a meeting in Amman with Jordan's King Abdullah -- along with Egypt the only Arab states having made peace with Israel.