U.S. Struggles To Hold Faltering Peace Talks Together

The fate of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks could be decided soon. An Arab League committee meets with Palestinian leaders in Tripoli Friday to discuss pulling out of the talks. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders in Jerusalem will consider a package of American incentives aimed at persuading Israel to extend a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank in order to keep the negotiations alive.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As we've been reporting, the Obama administration is frantically working to try to stop the fledgling Middle East peace talks from collapsing. The Palestinians are threatening to walk out if the Israelis don't extend a freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. That freeze on bulldozers and building expired last month.�

Today, Palestinian leaders are in Libya at a crucial meeting of the Arab League. Arab states are expected to back the Palestinian position.

And we're joined on the line from Jerusalem by our correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro to give us the latest.��

Good morning.�

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So what are we expecting to hear from the Palestinians today and over the weekend?�

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Renee, everyone has been working up to today on the assumption that it marked a kind of deadline. This meeting has been pushed back several times to allow the U.S. administration to try and negotiate with Israelis and Palestinians to save the talks. We've heard the U.S. administration has offered a number of incentives to both sides to try and get these talks back on track. What the Americans have been working on is a 60-day extension of the building freeze.

Late last night I spoke with a number of Palestinians. Hasam Sumlat(ph) is the head of the Fatah International Affairs committee. He says in principle the Palestinians will accept 60 days. Let's here what he has to say.

Mr. HASAM SUMLAT (Fatah International Affairs Committee): If settlement stop for a day, we will negotiate for a day. If settlement stops for a month, be it. So the principal is that we will only negotiate if the bulldozers are not at work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So far, Renee, there's been no word of a deal. The Israeli prime minister has not announced that they will extend the freeze any further. And so say Palestinians, they want several things from Arab leaders this weekend. Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib told me he expects Arab leaders to support the Palestinian position of no freeze, no talks.

But they will also be looking for something else, he says.

Mr. GHASSAN KHATIB (Spokesman, Palestinian Authority): We want the Arab to discuss with us the possible alternatives in case the peace process is not working. We want to see if the international community can do something by helping to establish a Palestinian state.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And by that he means they will be looking for a Security Council resolution that will recognize an independent Palestinian state at some time in the future.

So the stakes are pretty high right now. The U.S. has been working the phones to get Arab leaders to leave the door open for a continuation of the talks if a freeze is forthcoming. And that seems to be in the cards.

MONTAGNE: And on the Israeli side, what is happening?�

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Netanyahu is caught in a difficult position. His coalition is largely right wing. But it also has a party like Labor in it, which supports the talks.

I spoke with Knesset member for Labor Daniel Ben-Simon yesterday. He says Labor will leave Netanyahu's coalition unless the freeze is extended.

Mr. DANIEL BEN-SIMON (Labor Party): What we know is that if things don't go the right way, at least in terms of the freeze and in terms of the continuity of the peace process, we cannot stay in government. This is something that is shared by all members of Labor in parliament.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just to show you how divergent opinions are in the governing coalition of Netanyahu, member of Knesset Danny Danon, from Netanyahu's own party, Likud, told me last night another settlement freeze won't be allowed by his party or other members of the right wing coalition.

Mr. DANNY DANON (Likud Party): I think the 10 month freeze was a major mistake and we should not continue with another mistake. Because we are afraid that it is not about 60 day freeze. It is about accepting the path of the White House. This is unacceptable. It will not be permitted by the current coalition, and we know that it will be only the beginning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So these are the pressures facing Netanyahu. Members of his own party say the very principle of negotiations is wrong.

MONTAGNE: Huge pressures, though, Lourdes. What is likely to happen?�

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we don't know. If the freeze is extended for 60 days or a bit more, there's going to be a lot of pressure to get a lot done in that short amount of time. The Palestinians seem to want negotiations in that time to deal with the issue of borders. That's a big discussion to have. We're talking about determining what would be Palestine and what would belong to Israel.

That said, there's a great deal of pessimism on the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side, that these negotiations will go anywhere, even if they resume.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro speaking to us from Jerusalem.

Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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