JERUSALEM // The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said today that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were "serious" about reaching a peace agreement ahead of a new round of direct talks in Jerusalem. "They are getting down to business and they have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved with face-to-face negotiations," Mrs Clinton told reporters after meeting the Israeli president Shimon Peres.
"I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement ... This is the time and these are the leaders, and the United States will stand by them as they make difficult decisions." Mrs Clinton's vote of confidence in the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas came just hours ahead of a second day of talks, with the two leaders focused on resolving the core issues of the conflict. The US secretary of state, who met with the two men yesterday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, said she had heard them discussing the issues "candidly and forcefully," and was confident they could reach an agreement. "This effort takes patience, persistence and leadership. It is always easier to defer tough decisions than to make them," she said. "We will be in an active and sustained partnership with them through this effort." She hailed Mr Netanyahu as "a leader who understands how important it is to move forward," and insisted that the legitimate aspirations of both peoples were "not incompatible." The most urgent issue facing the two leaders is the expiry at the end of this month of an Israeli moratorium on settlement building on occupied Palestinian land. Israeli officials have indicated they will not extend the freeze but the Palestinians have warned they will quit the talks if construction work resumes fully on occupied land. * AFP