SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, Sept 14 (Reuters/Marwa Awad and Arshad Mohammed) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Egypt on Tuesday to lead a second round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, aiming to prevent negotiations from collapsing days after their launch.
Remarks by Palestinians and Israelis ahead of the talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh did not suggest a compromise was at hand to resolve a dispute over Israeli settlement
construction in the occupied West Bank
Choosing to continue with settlements in any form means destroying the negotiations, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
Erekat was speaking after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
said on Sunday he would not extend a partial building freeze, though he indicated he would curb future construction.
Clinton said en route to the talks the two sides must resolve their dispute over the end of the freeze on Jewish settlement building on land Palestinians want for a state.
For me, this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state, Clinton said.
Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
kicked off the latest in a long line of direct talks in Washington at the start of the month, hoping for a deal within a year to end the decades-old conflict.
But the nascent initiative, driven by US President Barack Obama, could unravel almost immediately.
The Palestinians say they will quit the peace talks unless Israel
extends its self-imposed moratorium on new construction in settlements when it expires at the end of September.
Talks are a test of intentions if Israel extends the moratorium on settlements then that widens the margin of negotiations and we continue to negotiate, Mohammed Shtayyeh
, a Palestinian delegate to the talks, told Reuters.
Allies of Netanyahu, whose coalition is dominated by pro-settler parties, warn of a government collapse if he fails to resume expanding the settler enclaves.
The issue is likely to dominate Tuesday's talks in this Red Sea Resort, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also on hand to try to find a solution.
Settlements are rejected entirely by Egypt, Palestine, and the Arabs, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on the eve of the talks. We are in constant talks with Israel but the Israeli side often avoids giving clear answers.
Signalling expectations of a rapid deal were low, officials said there would be no news conferences or joint statements on Tuesday. Clinton is to meet separately with Netanyahu and Abbas before a three-way meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, with more three-way talks in Jerusalem
The United States believes that the moratorium should be extended, Clinton told reporters, echoing Obama. But she added: There are obligations on both sides to ensure that these negotiations continue.
Obama has staked considerable political capital in the talks, launching them in the build-up to November congressional elections, where fellow Democrats face possible big losses to the rival Republicans.
A swift implosion would be a major blow and he is expected to put huge pressure on both sides to stay at the table.
Besides settlements, the Israelis and Palestinians are expected to discuss this week how to structure their talks, should they go ahead, and decide which issues to tackle first.
Abbas wants to focus on setting the borders of a future country, while Netanyahu wants to look at security arrangements to ensure a Palestinian state would not pose a threat to Israel.