U.S. drops push for Israeli freeze on settlement construction

McClatchy NewsDecember 7, 2010 

JERUSALEM — The U.S. has given up on trying to persuade Israel to declare a moratorium on new building in the West Bank in an effort to win Palestinian participation in face-to-face peace talks, the Obama administration said Tuesday.

"After consultation with the parties, we have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations," according to a statement provided by the White House. A spokesman specified that the statement should be attributed to "U.S. officials."

The Palestinian Authority has insisted that it will not engage in direct talks with Israel unless Israel freezes all construction for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, something the Israelis have refused to do, even after the Obama administration offered to provide Israel with 20 F-35 fighter jets worth $3 billion in return for a 90-day freeze.

The official U.S. statement, however, rejected the idea that the peace talks are dead.

"In the coming days and weeks, we will engage with both sides on the core substantive issues at stake in this conflict, and with the Arab states and other international partners on creating a firm basis to work toward our shared goal of a framework agreement on all permanent status issues — a goal to which we and the parties remain committed," the statement said. "We will continue these efforts next week when the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators visit Washington next week."

There was no immediate reaction from either the Israelis or the Palestinians. Israeli officials have said that previous freezes did little to push forward talks, and accused the Palestinians of setting preconditions to the peace talks.

Earlier in the day, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee that a deal was never reached on a building freeze because the U.S. was preoccupied with the diplomatic crisis over the WikiLeaks cables.

"At the moment, (the talks) have been completely halted," Barak told the Knesset's Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor denied the WikiLeaks connection.

"That's completely inaccurate," he said in an e-mail. "There's no connection between WikiLeaks and these negotiations."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suggested in a television interview last week that he would dissolve the Palestinian government, a limited form of self-rule agreed in an interim deal in 1993, if a deal for statehood couldn't be achieved.

In March 2010, U.S. officials announced that they would begin mediating indirect "proximity" talks, which involved diplomats shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

Those talks were expected to move toward direct negotiations, and the White House hosted a ceremony in September to announce the talks.

But the Israeli renewal of construction in the settlements just a few weeks later meant that the direct talks never got off the ground. The American negotiating team, led by U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, has struggled to bring the two sides to the same negotiating table ever since.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Margaret Talev in Washington contributed to this article.)


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