U.S. efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have not produced results so far, the Egyptian foreign minister said Thursday, less than two weeks before a key Arab decision on whether to halt the negotiations.
The peace talks, launched last month at the White House, have stalled over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders traded barbed remarks Thursday about their future.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to extend a 10-month moratorium on new housing starts that ended on Sept. 26. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he won't resume the talks without an extension on the building curbs.
Speaking after a meeting with Abbas, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said his government is continuing its contacts with the U.S. and Israel, but that "up to now, the necessary breakthrough did not take place."
Egypt, the first Arab country to reach peace with Israel, wields considerable influence in the Arab world and serves as an important mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.
Aboul Gheit said Netanyahu's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, recently held talks with Egyptian officials.
"During the meeting, Egypt confirmed its ... support for the Palestinian demand," Aboul Gheit told the news conference.
The Israelis have been in talks with U.S. officials to find a formula that would again restrict settlement construction in exchange for diplomatic or security guarantees from the Americans. Netanyahu leads a hard-line coalition dominated by pro-settler lawmakers, and his coalition could be threatened if he re-imposes the building restrictions without getting something in return.
Netanyahu complained late Thursday that the settlement issue "is not substantial," because construction in the settlements "will not influence the peace map."
Netanyahu's statement after his meeting with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman could be interpreted as a rare indication from the Israeli leader that he would order evacuation of settlements in a peace accord, though it fell well short of a policy declaration.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said several times that agreement on a border between Israel and a Palestinian state would automatically solve the settlement issue, because both states would build only on their side of the border.
Aboul Gheit and Egypt's powerful intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, were both in Ramallah on Thursday to discuss the state of the peace process with Palestinian leaders. They did not meet with Israeli leaders.
President Barack Obama has made the pursuit of Mideast peace a top priority _ setting a September 2011 target for brokering a deal. But his ambitious plan has quickly run into trouble, stalled by the settlement dispute and the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
The 22-member Arab League has given Obama until the second week of November to broker a compromise that will enable the peace talks to resume. Arab League foreign ministers are to meet at that time to discuss the state of negotiations and possible alternatives if the standoff continues.
Abbas reiterated that resuming negotiations is his preferred choice, but that he will not do so without a settlement freeze.
If negotiations are no longer an option, the Palestinians would try to persuade the United States to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War, Abbas said. Finally, the Palestinians could seek U.N. Security Council recognition of such a state, he added.
"For now, we are focusing on the first option (negotiations)," Abbas said.
In response, Netanyahu released a statement late Thursday calling on the Palestinians to "fulfill their commitment to conduct direct negotiations seriously, in good faith and without preconditions." Netanyahu said negotiations are the only way to reach a peace accord, warning against attempts to "bypass the direct talks by going to international bodies."