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Mideast leaders 'getting down to business' on second day of talks

Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hold a second day of talks to try to overcome disagreements about Jewish settlement building.
/ Source: news services

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are "getting down to business" in tackling the key issues at the heart of their conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.

But Clinton gave no indication that the sides are any closer to resolving the most immediate stumbling block to newly relaunched peace talks: a Palestinian threat to quit the negotiations if Israel doesn't extend a curb on West Bank settlement construction.

Clinton is in Jerusalem for a second day of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a day after meeting the leaders at a summit in Egypt.

Addressing reporters, Clinton said they already have "begun to grapple with the core issues" in their conflict. But she made no mention of the settlement dispute.

Netanyahu will first meet separately with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Abbas will join them in the afternoon for three-way talks that will also be attended by Washington's Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

The two leaders failed in talks Tuesday to find a compromise over the settlements, but Mitchell said the pair had discussed several core issues that split the two sides and said that they were convinced they could reach a deal within a year.

A 10-month Israeli moratorium on new housing construction in West Bank settlements expires on Sept. 30 and Palestinians have said they would quit the U.S.-brokered talks if building resumes.

Mitchell said after meetings in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that he believed they were "moving in the right direction overall."

Settlements, violence complicate talks
The status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the borders of a future Palestinian state and security arrangements are the main issues that the two leaders would have to resolve to secure a permanent peace deal.

This latest round of direct talks was relaunched at the start of September after a 20-month hiatus.

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu may fly to Washington early next week, with speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama may get involved to try to resolve the settlement impasse.

Netanyahu, whose coalition government is dominated by pro-settler parties, has said he would not extend the freeze but could limit the scope of building in some settlements.

Palestinians say the settlements, built on land they want for a state, would deny them a viable and contiguous country. The settlements are on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and are deemed by the World Court to be illegal under international law.

Protests and continued tension over separation barriers

The talks could also be derailed by continued violence. Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket and two mortar bombs into Israel on Wednesday, the Israeli army said.

The Islamist group Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas, is opposed to Israeli talks.

After Clinton completes talks in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman over the next two days, Mitchell plans to travel to Syria and to Lebanon to work toward a wider peace, an official said.