Israel settlements key to peace
Amman - Two days of Mideast peace talks appear to have brought Israel and the Palestinians closer to a deal that would allow those talks to continue, but even if the negotiations move forward far more difficult issues lay ahead.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak suggested a compromise over Israel's plan to lift its partial ban on construction on the West Bank later this month, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he sees no alternative to continuing negotiations in search of peace with Israel.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Amman, said she is convinced that Netanyahu and Abbas are trying to seek common ground.
"They are committed and they have begun to grapple with the hard but necessary questions," she said, shortly before leaving for the US. "I am convinced that this is the time and these are the leaders to achieve the result we all seek."
Abbas' comments came as Israel was coming under increasing pressure to extend its curb on Jewish settlement construction, and aides to the Palestinian leader suggested there might be movement toward a compromise on that issue.
Abbas had said previously that the talks could not survive if the Israeli building restrictions were lifted as planned.
"We all know there is no alternative to peace through negotiations, so we have no alternative other than to continue these efforts," Abbas said on Thursday, speaking through an interpreter in Ramallah, where the headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority is located.
Give peace a chance
It was unclear from Abbas' remarks whether he was signalling that the Palestinians would remain committed to the talks even if Israel does not extend the limits on building.
Egypt's leader said in a radio interview that he urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the restrictions for three more months to give peacemaking a chance.
Mubarak said he told Netanyahu the delay could give the two sides time to draft their future borders. After those lines are agreed, Mubarak reasoned, Israel can build within its future borders and the Palestinians within theirs.
The United States has also encouraged Israel to extend its West Bank building limits.
Netanyahu's office said on Thursday that Israel doesn't plan to extend the current limits, which are due to expire in late September. Netanyahu has indicated, however, that some restrictions would be applied after that.
Aides to Abbas said no deal had been reached on the settlement issue, but said they accept Mubarak's proposal and expect that a compromise will be found.
Previously, the Palestinians have said they would walk out on the talks if any construction resumes.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter.
Michele Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Thursday the talks appear to have edged the process forward, although bigger challenges lay ahead.
The discussions in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem "got the talks rolling toward a possible compromise on the settlements moratorium issue, which probably will be reached over the next week or so," she said.
"But once again the parties are spending weeks dealing with a short-term issue to avert a crisis rather than getting down to the larger problems."
On Thursday, Clinton and Abbas met at the Palestinian Authority's West Bank headquarters.
Abbas thanked the Obama administration for its efforts to broker the current talks, the first in two years. "I know that this time is difficult and the circumstances are difficult, but the Americans are exerting active efforts to achieve this peace," he said.
Later, Clinton travelled to Amman for lunch with Jordan's King Abdullah, whose country already has a peace treaty with Israel and is a strong supporter of efforts to work out a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Separate Syria peace deal
Dates for the next round of top-level negotiations are supposed to be determined during consultations next week.
Gaza militants opposed to the peace efforts have sent mortars and rockets crashing into southern Israeli communities in recent days, drawing retaliatory Israeli air strikes.
Overnight, Israeli aircraft hit two Gaza targets that the military described as weapons storage facilities. No casualties were reported.
Palestinian official Raed Fattouh, who co-ordinates the flow of goods into Gaza with Israel, said the Israeli military also cancelled plans to let new cars enter Gaza on Thursday for the first time in four years.
The Israeli military had no immediate confirmation.
George Mitchell, the Obama administration's envoy for Middle East peace, was travelling to Syria on Thursday for talks with senior government officials about starting a separate Syria-Israel peace negotiation.
Later on Thursday he was due to travel to Lebanon.