Clinton works to regain footing on Mideast peace talks

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her aides worked Monday to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cajoling Palestinian leaders angered by Israel's decision to build 1,600 dwellings in East Jerusalem.

The effort took on new urgency against the backdrop of fresh violence on the West Bank, and a dispute over Jewish settlements that's prompted the worst friction between the United States and Israel in almost 20 years.

In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Clinton mixed strong words of support for Israel with continued criticism of its construction in East Jerusalem, also claimed by the Palestinians.

In response to U.S. demands, she said, Netanyahu has "responded with specific actions Israel is prepared to take. … We will follow up on these discussions and seek a common understanding about the most productive way forward."

In his own speech late Monday to the AIPAC gathering, Netanyahu, who meets Obama on Tuesday, gave no ground on Israel’s claims to all of Jerusalem, or on its right to build homes for Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem.

“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital,” he said, prompting a lengthy standing ovation.

Of Jewish neighborhoods just across the 1949 armistice lines, Netanyahu said: “They are an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem. Everyone knows … that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.”

Netanyahu said Israel is committed to peace with the Palestinians. But he made no mention of steps the White House has asked Israel to take to improve the atmosphere for such talks. The key question appears to be whether the Obama administration can tease sufficient concessions from Netanyahu to lure wary Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into peace talks.

Palestinian and other Arab officials said they were waiting for the outcome of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting before taking further steps. They were not authorized to speak for the record.

Underscoring the situation's sensitivity, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said news cameras would be excluded from the two leaders' meeting Tuesday evening. Similarly, there was no media access to Clinton's meeting with Netanyahu at a Washington hotel Monday. That one-on-one session went on for 75 minutes, longer than planned.

While spokesman for Obama and Clinton denied they were sending a message, there seemed to be one: U.S. relations with Israel are not yet back on an even footing after the East Jerusalem construction announcement two weeks ago marred a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

According to news reports from Israel, Netanyahu has agreed to take steps to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. His government also seems willing to entertain U.S. insistence that indirect "proximity" talks, should they get under way, deal with the core disputes between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than just procedural questions.

But on East Jerusalem, the most Obama can likely hope for is a private assurance that new construction will be minimized and there will be no more embarrassments like that of two weeks ago. It remains to be seen if that will satisfy Abbas.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians wanted to give the proximity talks a "chance," the Associated Press reported. He spoke after U.S. envoy Mitchell met Abbas in Amman, Jordan. Erekat said the Palestinians wanted assurances that the planned new construction, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, will be halted.

Netanyahu's position on Jerusalem — that it is Israel's undivided capital — won strong support at the AIPAC conference, which the group said 7,500 people were attending.

AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, got a standing ovation when he declared, "Jerusalem is not a settlement."

Clinton, by contrast, told the gathering that "new construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks … It exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region could hope to exploit. And it undermines America's unique ability to play a role … in the peace process."

"Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don't agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally," she said.

The audience, which greeted Clinton warmly and gave her seven standing ovations, sat quietly through that portion of her speech.

Clinton warned that the status quo is unsustainable for Israel because the Arab population in Israel and the occupied territories is growing faster than the Jewish one.

"We cannot ignore the long-term population trends that result from Israeli occupation," she said. "The inexorable mathematics of demography are hastening the hour at which Israelis may have to choose between preserving their democracy and staying true to the dream of a Jewish homeland."

Steven Thomma contributed to this article.

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