Settlements Stall Restarted Mideast Peace Talks

U.S. and European diplomats are shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an eleventh-hour attempt to salvage the recently restarted peace talks. Guest host Rebecca Roberts talks to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about the latest obstacles.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen is away. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

The Obama administration is engaged in a furious round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at saving the fledgling Middle East peace talks. Yesterday, senior Palestinian leaders said Palestinians will leave the negotiations unless a freeze on Jewish building in settlements that expired last week is extended. Israel's government is refusing to halt further construction. And that leaves the Americans again in the position of having to come up with a deal that will stop the peace talks from faltering.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Jerusalem. Good Morning.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.

ROBERTS: So tell me where things stand now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a desperate series of negotiations going on right now, with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell making the rounds here and in the region, in order to come up with a formula that will save the talks.

Right now, the Americans seem to be working towards a 60-day extension of the settlement-building moratorium, thats - it's no coincidence that that would take them just past the midterm U.S. elections. The Obama administration does not want peace talks collapsing at such a politically-sensitive time in the U.S.

Of course, the Israelis and Palestinians have their own timetable and agendas. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is largely right wing and pro-settler, and the majority of his cabinet - some 15 members -are against any extension of the building freeze. Netanyahu doesnt want his government to collapse over this issue. And so, up until now, he has been apparently not playing ball with U.S.

The Palestinians, especially leader Mahmoud Abbas, have staked a lot on having the settlement freeze continue. So the Palestinian position is: How can we negotiate for peace when our land is being illegally annexed? And they are threatening to withdraw from the talks.

ROBERTS: What incentives have the Americans been offering to keep the talks going?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not clear yet that any formula has been agreed on. But to entice the Israelis, the U.S. had made an initial offer of a series of security guarantees to Israel, in the case of a peace deal that included an offer of military hardware and other incentives. To Palestinians, we've heard the Obama administration has offered the assurance that negotiations over borders with Israel would be based on the 1967 lines, something this Israeli government has refused to agree to up until now.

But, you know, talks are ongoing. George Mitchell, this weekend, is in the region talking to the Jordanians, the Egyptians, pushing everyone toward some kind of consensus. We're not sure if he's going to succeed.

ROBERTS: If you had to lay odds, how likely do you think it is that the Americans will be able to salvage something?

HILLARD: You know, these talks seem to be teetering on the brink of failure at any given moment. And the settlement issue isnt the only reason for that. Abbas and Netanyahu have met twice so far in these direct negotiations. But Palestinians are already complaining that nothing of substance has been discussed, and the Israelis are refusing to address core issues.

The Israelis are saying the Palestinians are focused on the issue of settlements, which the Israelis say has never been an impediment to peace talks in the past. So even if this crisis is averted and a deal on the moratorium is reached, there are many, many more obstacles to overcome.

Lourdes-Garcia Navarro, speaking to us from Jerusalem. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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