Mideast talks still under threat
Jerusalem - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended on Thursday three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with no visible sign of progress on breaking a deadlock over building in West Bank settlements.
In an ABC News interview, Clinton again gave voice to US hopes that Israel would extend its partial construction moratorium past a September 30 expiration date.
But Israel reaffirmed the 10-month freeze on housing starts in settlements in the occupied West Bank would end on schedule, and a Palestinian threat to walk out of the nascent negotiations if building resumed loomed over the US peace effort.
Officials close to the talks said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had rejected a proposal to extend the moratorium by three months.
Wrapping up a round of negotiations that began in Egypt on Tuesday, Clinton headed to Jordan for lunch with King Abdullah after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city Ramallah.
Giving an upbeat assessment of her meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, she told ABC in Jerusalem: "I would say they're in a constructive channel and that has been very reassuring to us."
Palestine not moving on moratorium
Abbas's spokesperson, however, made it clear that the Palestinians had not budged from their demand that the moratorium continue on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, territory they want for a future state.
"The president reiterated to Secretary Clinton the Palestinian position regarding the requirements for the continuation of the peace process, specifically the issue of freezing settlement construction and ending the occupation," said the spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rdainah.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Israel's Channel 1 TV he had raised the idea with Netanyahu to keep the moratorium in place for another three months, hoping to buy time for negotiators to agree on the borders of a Palestinian state.
Israel has said such a deal could entail a land swap under which it would keep major settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Once frontier lines were agreed, Mubarak said in the interview, Israel could build within its future borders and Palestinians could do the same - effectively resolving the moratorium issue and keeping the peace talks alive.
Officials close to the talks said the US, which launched the face-to-face negotiations in Washington on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus, had made a similar proposal. US officials declined to comment.
"We are working hard to make sure there remains a conducive atmosphere to constructive talks," Clinton said in the ABC interview, noting that it took Netanyahu "a lot of political capital" to achieve the moratorium in the first place.
US envoy heading to Arab countries
In a statement, Netanyahu's bureau said he was standing by his position not to extend the moratorium. He has said, however, he intends to limit the scope of future settlement construction.
The settlements are deemed by the World Court to be illegal, a finding disputed by Israel. Palestinians fear the enclaves will deny them a viable and contiguous country.
Meeting in Brussels on Thursday, European leaders will call on Israel to extend the moratorium according to a draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters.
Washington has set a one-year target for resolving major issues dividing the two sides. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would meet next week and set a new date for leaders to convene.
As part of US President Barack Obama's drive for a wider peace between Israel and the Arab world, Mitchell planned to travel to Syria on Thursday for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then to Lebanon to meet Lebanese leaders.
In the Hamas-run Gaza Strip overnight, Israeli aircraft carried out three air strikes against suspected militant targets after rocket and mortar bomb attacks on Israel. No casualties were reported in the incidents.