Middle East peace talks continue

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Israeli and Palestinian leaders got �down to business� today. Secretary Clinton met again with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mauhmoud Abbas. The meeting took place at the Israeli leader's official residence in Jerusalem. Later, US special envoy George Mitchell said the discussion was encouraging.

GEORGE MITCHELL: I will say that the two leaders are not leaving the tough issues to the end of their discussions. They are tackling upfront the issues that are at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We take this as a strong indicator of their belief that peace is possible, and of their desire to conclude an agreement.

MULLINS: Mitchell said Israeli settlements were among the tough issues discussed today by Netanyahu and Abbas. And that the two leaders had made some progress. The World's Matthew Bell is in Jerusalem, following the talks. Did Secretary Clinton, who was in Jerusalem today, accomplish anything and do we yet even know?

MATTHEW BELL: Well, she spent the day in Jerusalem and there were meetings, there were handshakes, there were photo-ops. In a way that sounds extremely cynical but it also is an accomplishment because there were a lot of people saying that maybe these talks wouldn't get off the ground at all and here we are. As far as the settlements issue, as you mentioned, we just don't know if that early obstacle is going to be overcome. During one of the photo-ops, Hillary Clinton met with the Israeli foreign minister and someone shouted a question, did you get anywhere on the settlements issue? And Hillary Clinton said it's great to be here in Jerusalem. So that's what we know.

MULLINS: Well, we know that it's one of the most difficult issues. Maybe you can just very briefly recap what that's all about and where the two sides stand right now on the building of settlements?

BELL: On the one hand, you got a right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu whose government supports the settlements in the West Bank in east Jerusalem. He is under a lot of pressure from members of his coalition to keep building Jewish settlements. The Israeli government imposed a ten month partial freeze on building and they say that that was a gesture to the Palestinians. Now, the Palestinians say, look you're building settlements on the land that is supposed to be our new independent state and it's just incompatible. So the Palestinian president, Mauhmoud Abbas, has said if you don't keep going with this freeze, I'm going to get up from the table and walk away because it just isn't worth it.

MULLINS: Matthew, I wonder what it's like to be there in Jerusalem where Hillary Clinton is conducting these talks right now and know that militants in the Palestinian territories are launching mortar shells into Israel and Israeli jets are bombing targets in Gaza even as these talks are going on?

BELL: That's a big part of this story, Lisa. Today these attacks represented sort of the most violent day in about a year and a half since the war that Israel launched against Hamas in the Gaza Strip at the end of 2008 ended. There were no injuries today and there was no major damage in southern Israel where the mortars and rockets landed. There was reported to be one death in Gaza. The Israeli military said that it bombed a smuggling tunnel and that a Palestinian worker in the tunnel was killed and at least two Palestinians were injured. The Israelis say that look, Hamas is in control of the Gaza Strip, we hold them responsible for these attacks on Israel. Over the years there have been thousands of these rocket attacks and they have killed people. From Israel's point of view this is a serious threat. It also highlights for people here the fact that Hamas is not at the table in these negotiations. Hamas is the de facto government in the Gaza Strip for 1.5 million Palestinians. Because of the divisions on the Palestinian side politically, Hamas is not part of the negotiations and they've made it clear that they don't want to negotiate with Israel, they want to fight.

MULLINS: Matthew, I just wonder in summary whether or not people in Jerusalem where you are, or for that matter in the Palestinian territories where you've spent some time recently, are paying much attention to what's going on with Secretary Clinton?

BELL: When the American Secretary of State is in Jerusalem, it certainly is a big story and it's in the news and it's in the papers. But its amazing coming here and talking to people because Americans are so interested in the peace process, even though it's been going on for so long, and they sort of look at this part of the world through the prism of the peace process. But you talk to Israelis and Palestinians about what's going on right now with these talks and it's really amazing how skeptical they are. They sort of, you know, you hear people say we've seen this movie before and we just don't think this is going anywhere. When you start talking about the core issues of refugees and Jerusalem, the status of Jerusalem, of security of water, all of these things just represent huge challenges for the two sides. A lot of this stuff has been negotiated over the years, but there's no doubt that they're very far away from coming to a final agreement and sort of reaching that elusive two-state solution that President Obama and Hillary Clinton talk about.

MULLINS: The World's Matthew Bell in Jerusalem. Thanks very much for the update, Matthew.

BELL: You're welcome.

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