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Middle East

Clashing Priorities At Mideast Peace Talks

An Egyptian worker spruces up the area near a peace slogan at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, a day before Egypt hosts the second round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Amr Nabil/AP hide caption

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Amr Nabil/AP

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East leaders convene at an Egypt resort Tuesday for peace talks, the next step in U.S.-led efforts to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to confront and try to resolve the nitty-gritty issues of their conflict.

It's tempting to think of the peace process as drawing up an elaborate "to-do list," but analysts warn that it's a lot more complicated than that. A long list of issues — from the status of Jerusalem to security safeguards for Israel — has foiled efforts by previous American administrations.

Clinton will be joining Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other negotiators at Egypt's Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for talks aimed at reaching a settlement within a year.

On Wednesday, the leaders will shift to Jerusalem for a second day of discussions.

If Abbas has a priority list going into the talks, the first item on it is likely getting the Israelis to extend their moratorium on new housing construction in the West Bank. The freeze is set to expire near the end of this month, and Abbas has said he will walk out of the talks if the Israelis start building again.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), President Mahmoud Abbas (right) of the Palestinian Authority, and George Mitchell (second right), the U.S. special envoy, at the start of direct peace talks on Sept. 2 in Washington. The next round of talks begins Tuesday at an Egyptian resort. Jason Reed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jason Reed/AFP/Getty Images

As his news conference last week, President Obama said he has urged Netanyahu to extend the freeze as long as the talks are making progress.  Netanyahu signaled on Sunday that he might be willing to limit construction in the settlements but said he won't ban it altogether. "Israel cannot continue the freeze," he said.

Room For A 'Quiet Understanding'?

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that his top priority is to nail down security guarantees for Israel, and he wants the Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, something the Palestinians have rejected, since about 20 percent of Israel's residents are Arab Muslims and Christians.

Daniel Pollock, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says there are possibilities for a compromise on the construction freeze, but it may be that the leaders will have to come up with some quiet understandings, rather than a formal declaration.

One possibility, he says, might allow for limited construction in areas that both sides have implicitly accepted that Israeli will get as a result of land swaps aimed at formalizing the borders of Israel and an independent Palestinian state.

"It's really urgent to keep this issue from blowing up the negotiations," Pollock says.

If the Obama administration has a to-do list for the talks, the key item seems to be to get the two sides to agree on boundaries. "Ultimately, the way to solve these problems is for the two sides to agree what's going to be Israel, what's going to be the state of Palestine," he said.

"And if you can get that agreement, then you can start constructing anything that the people of Israel see fit in the undisputed areas," the president added.

Can Peace Talks Be Piecemeal?

Some analysts say the United States needs a comprehensive strategy for the Middle East, not just a checklist of issues. They say the strategy needs to consider the internal political dynamics faced by both sides, as well as the external influences of their neighbors.

"You can't take these issues one by one," says Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You have to deal with it all at the same time."

Netanyahu must hold together a governing coalition that includes hard-liners on the settlement issue, and Abbas has authority only over the West Bank, while the rival Hamas movement controls Gaza and remains adamantly opposed to negotiations with Israel.

Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority and visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says any resolution will have to take Hamas and Gaza into account, as part of a comprehensive strategy.

"You can't ignore the internal politics of a nation that is negotiating a broad existential agreement like this," Elgindy says.

Seeking Broad Appeal

He says that part of the process must be to facilitate the internal negotiation between the Palestinian factions, so that Hamas won't obstruct any final peace agreement and may eventually come to accept it.

The comprehensive plan must also include the peace initiatives with the neighboring Arab countries, including Syria and Lebanon, Elgindy says.

"Ultimately we have to craft a structure for [the talks] that will lend itself to broad support," says Alterman, "not just the United States, but the Arab states, the European Union and others."

"We need to leave a way for the international community to play a much more constructive role," Alterman says, a role that could include such things as security guarantees, peacekeeping and economic support for the Palestinians — "maybe even some kind of carrot to bring Hamas into the tent."

The timing may favorable, says Pollock.  He cites recent Palestinian polling data that show Abbas may have some room to maneuver.

"It's not that the Palestinian public is optimistic; it's that they are willing to tolerate further efforts and willing to consider compromise," Pollock says.

He adds that polling numbers show the Palestinian public may be more flexible toward peace negotiations than at any time in the past five years.