September 1, 2010 2:25 am

Shootings overshadow Mideast talks

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Barack Obama will on Wednesday meet the Palestinian and Israeli leaders in the White House as the US president’s administration makes its most concerted push for a Middle East peace accord.

While expectations for making progress are not high, Mr Obama is increasing his investment in the process. Direct talks between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, will formally begin on Thursday.

But violence has already overshadowed the start of the negotiations. Four Israelis were shot dead on Tuesday night in a car near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. This was the deadliest attack on an Israeli target since March 2008. The military wing of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, claimed responsibility.

Kiryat Arba is on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Hebron.

Mr Netanyahu has imposed a partial freeze on settlement construction, which is due to expire on September 26. Mr Abbas says he will leave the talks if this restriction is not renewed. But the Israeli premier’s rightwing coalition partners are opposed to any extension.

Nonetheless, George Mitchell, US envoy to the Middle East, said: “We are pleased that negotiations will be relaunched after a hiatus of more than a year and a half, and we will engage with perseverance and patience with the hope they will come to a peaceful solution.”

King Abdullah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt, will also travel to Washington for the talks and meet Mr Obama on Wednesday. The US president will later host a dinner for all four leaders, joined by Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy for the “quartet”, comprising the US, Russia, the UN and the European Union.

More intensive talks led by Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, will follow on Thursday.

The key issues will be the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, the fate of Palestinian refugees who were driven from Israel at its birth in 1948, and the status of Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas would meet for direct talks every two weeks from now on, said Mr Mitchell. The US would play an “active and sustained role”, he said.

“That does not mean the US must be physically represented in every single meeting, but we recognise the value of direct discussions between the parties and in fact will encourage that between the two leaders on a regular basis.”

An early sign of whether these talks are any more likely than previous rounds to make progress will come on September 26, when the 10-month Israeli moratorium on settlement construction is due to expire.

Mr Mitchell would not be drawn on whether he expected Israel to renew the settlement freeze, saying only that the US wanted “actions by all sides that would help to advance our efforts, not hinder them”.

Robert Danin, a former deputy to Mr Blair in the Middle East, said the most serious challenge was how to handle the settlement moratorium. “One of the reasons that the administration wanted the negotiations to start now is that it will be easier to have the settlement question addressed within the context of a negotiation process than outside of one,” he said.

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