Arab Restraint May Give Peace Talks Another Chance

Reports suggest that while the Arabs will again condemn Israeli settlement building, they will not take a stand on whether the Palestinians should continue the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. This will effectively give U.S. mediators more time to work on a deal to keep the negotiations going. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson from Sirte, Libya.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Arab leaders are meeting in Libya today to decide whether Palestinian officials should continue face-to-face negotiations with their Israeli counterparts now that a freeze on settlement building has expired. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is at the Arab League summit in the Libyan seafront city of Sirte.

Soraya, thanks for being with us.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome.

SIMON: And what have the folks there decided to do?�

NELSON: Well, at the moment the Arab leaders are meeting behind closed doors at a big conference center here in Sirte. It's actually Gaddafi's hometown. And what they're considering are some measures that the Arab foreign ministers decided on last night. The primary one of those being that they would delay by 30 days any sort of decision, that they would give themselves, quote, "time to pursue alternatives."

But what officials are privately saying they're doing is giving U.S. officials more time to try and convince Israel to extend a moratorium on settlement building. The fact that that ban ended and has not been extended has sort of stalled talks here in the past week.

And so they're expected to adopt this measure, the leaders who are meeting today. And it's certainly far less draconian than what was expected earlier in the week, including some rumors that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would resign.�

And I should mention that this grace period is one of six measures and statements concerning Israel and the Palestinians that the leaders are considering.

SIMON: What are some of the other measures?�

NELSON: Well, not surprisingly, the first one puts the blame squarely on Israel's shoulders for why the talks are faltering. The settlement freeze is a real sticking point here. This particular measure which does condemn Israel also gives the green light to Palestinians to return to indirect negotiations if all else fails. The others are nothing new, and they include things like lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip and ensuring Palestinian rights.

SIMON: Soraya, remind us why the settlement freeze has been such a sticking point on both sides of the table.

NELSON: What's at issue at the moment are some of the lands that were acquired by Israel during the 1967 war. Today there are nearly a half million Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem in areas both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim as their own.

Now, Israel had agreed to a 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction, but that ban expired on September 26. Now, the Palestinians want them to extend it, but Israel refuses, wanting to negotiate without pre-conditions. Still, both sides are considering compromises that would allow the one-month old talks to continue. So we'll have to wait and see what comes out of that.

SIMON: Soraya, how's the Obama administration feel about the meetings?�Any indication?

NELSON: Well, the State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, did offer a statement that said that they appreciate the support for U.S. efforts to keep the talks going. But they've been generally reserved. U.S. officials are waiting to see what the final statement is that comes out of this summit which ends today.

SIMON: Whats it like there, Soraya? We dont get a lot of insights into Libya, even now.

NELSON: Yeah, this is interesting; this place is sort of this huge complex that's been built up in the village where Moammar Gaddafi hails from, where his family hails from. And the Arab leaders are meeting in a huge conference hall across the street. What was interesting is both for them and for us here in the media center, there is this - there are images of the conference or of Moammar Gaddafi meeting with the leaders or greeting them as they come in. But then they keep playing this speech over and over again by Egypt's Nasser, the, you know, the late Nasser - basically praising Gaddafi. I'm assuming it was a speech that was delivered around the time where Gaddafi first took over here. So it's just interesting that they keep looping that speech over and over and over again, very surreal.

SIMON: Well, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson at the Arab League summit in Sirte, Libya. Thanks so much.

NELSON: Thank you, Scott.

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