WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) — The Obama administration sought Friday to direct Israel and the Palestinians back toward direct peace talks, even as the two sides and much of the world seemed to be ignoring the U.S. attempts at leadership on a Mideast peace strategy.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to meet senior Israeli and Palestinian officials Friday, with each side taking actions that the United States had expressly warned against: the Palestinians winning U.N. recognition of their claim to a state on Thursday and the Israelis retaliating Friday by approving 3,000 new homes on Israeli-occupied territory.
The administration has campaigned for nearly two years to prevent the Palestinian action at the United Nations, fearful it would anger Israel so much that the resumption of direct talks between the Jewish state and Palestinians would be impossible. The administration remains concerned as well that statehood could mean International Criminal Court action against Israeli soldiers for their conduct in Palestinian or disputed territory — a scenario Washington believes would greatly debilitate peace hopes.
But most of the world’s governments brushed aside Israeli and American concerns, with U.N. member states voting 138-9 to recognize Palestine as a nonmember observer state and grant it the most significant upgrade in diplomatic status in its more than six-decades of conflict with Israel. The United States insists that the result has changed nothing on the ground, but it is struggling to shift the focus to where it believes progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is possible.
“We’re going to continue our effort to try to get these parties to the table because that’s the only way that we are going to get to two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“That’s the goal that both parties say they want,” she told reporters. “We’re going to keep doing our best. But the parties have to want it. The parties have to work for it.”
Nuland also criticized Israel’s settlement construction plans, saying such actions are “counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution.”
The Obama administration has almost nothing to show for four years of mediation efforts. Israeli-Palestinian talks have been mostly dormant since the failure of the last high-level U.S. engagement to produce an agreement, when President George W. Bush brought leaders to Annapolis, Md., with the goal of a treaty by the end of 2008. After a two-year hiatus, talks begun under the Obama administration’s guidance in 2010 quickly fizzled out.
The rough contours of any agreement are clear. The two sides would have borders based on Israel’s boundaries before the 1967 Mideast war, with agreed land swaps for Israeli security, to take into account population movements on the ground and ensure that Palestinian lands are connected. The two sides would also have to reach long-sought understandings on water supplies, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem — which both Jews and Muslims consider to be their holy cities and which both sides claim as their capital.
But American efforts have been continuously stymied. The Palestinians won’t enter direct talks until Israel halts the construction of new Jewish homes on lands they claim for their state; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government says there can be no preconditions on negotiations. And despite repeated pleas from Washington, both sides have pressed on with actions that have only made peace less likely and arguably strengthened the position of hardliners on both sides.
Hoping to steer the diplomacy back toward a path to peace talks, and away from the world spotlight of the U.N., Clinton is meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Washington on Friday. She is also talking to Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, a key mediator.
Clinton is expected to reiterate strong U.S. support for Israel, but also reassure the Palestinians that Washington would remain engaged in peace efforts. The Obama administration doesn’t want to shut out the Western-backed government of President Mahmoud Abbas despite its disagreements, especially after the militant group Hamas gained wider legitimacy in the Arab world after its recent weeklong war with the Jewish state. Unlike Hamas, Abbas’ government publicly supports a two-state agreement with Israel.
Asked about calls in Congress to cut off U.S. aid to Palestinians, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on an Air Force One flight to Pennsylvania that the administration still wants to play a “helpful role.”
“It’s not our view that cutting off aid is necessary,” he said.