Washington – The Obama administration is once again at odds with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and once again the issue is construction of Jewish settlements on Arab lands.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to meet Thursday in New York with Mr. Netanyahu to try to smooth over a new rift that emerged between the United States and Israel after Israeli authorities recently announced the construction of 1,300 more housing units in Arab East Jerusalem.
The direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians that President Obama initiated in September had already stalled over the issue of renewed settlement construction.
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Mr. Obama responded harshly to the Israeli plan, saying the announcement of new settlements was not “helpful” to efforts to get the talks going again. He suggested it was exactly the kind of provocative action the administration has implored both sides to refrain from taking.
“Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust,” he said while on his visit to Indonesia Wednesday.
Secretary Clinton made an even more direct link between the Israeli action and the stalled talks when she declared Wednesday in Washington that Israel’s announcement was “counterproductive to our efforts to resume negotiations between the parties.”
“We have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust,” she added, “including in Jerusalem.”
The specific mention of Jerusalem followed Netanyahu’s response to Obama’s upbraiding. Shortly after Obama’s comments, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying curtly, “Jerusalem is not a settlement. Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel.”
Israel seized Arab East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and under international law it is occupied territory. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, while Israelis see East Jerusalem as part of their “eternal and undivided” capital. International powers, including the US, list Jerusalem among the final-status issues that a peace accord must address.
Many Middle East experts in the US see a direct link between Israel’s latest actions and the results of US midterm elections earlier this month. Not only did those elections deliver a Republican-controlled House, they say, but that change also means the elevation to key House committee chairmanships of several unabashed pro-Israel representatives.
For example, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, in line to take the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the new Congress, echoes the Israeli government view that Iran is a more imminent threat to Middle East stability (let alone Israel’s security) than unattained Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian leaders have condemned Israel’s announcement of new settlements and said such actions reveal Israel’s real aim of using relaunched peace talks to consolidate its control of Palestinian lands.
Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator in the talks, said the new construction plans demonstrate that Israel “has chosen settlements and rejected peace.” He called on the international community to respond by recognizing a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.
The Palestinian Authority has said failure to reach a settlement freeze to allow peace talks to resume could lead it to seek recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations Security Council. Such a move would put the US in a difficult diplomatic spot, because the US would very possibly stand alone among Security Council members in opposing such a declaration.
That is one reason administration officials continue to remind the two parties that direct talks are the only way to reach a goal of peace, which both sides say they want. As Clinton said Wednesday at a meeting in Washington with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, “I believe strongly that negotiations are the only means by which the parties will be able to conclude an agreement that will lead to a Palestinian state and Israel living in security with its neighbors.”
Later Wednesday, after a meeting with Egyptian officials, Clinton added, “There can be no progress until [the two parties] actually come together and explore where areas of agreement are and how to narrow areas of disagreement. So we do not support unilateral steps by either party that could prejudge the outcome of such negotiations.”