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 met senior Israeli and Palestinian officials Friday, with each side locked in a pattern of 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.
"We have to convince Palestinians that direct negotiations with Israel represent not just the best but the only path to the independent state they deserve," Clinton said Friday night in a speech at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. "America supports the goal of a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with Israel. But this week's vote at the U.N. won't bring Palestinians any closer, and it may bring new challenges for the United Nations system and for Israel."
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.
Clinton said Israel, too, needed to reach out to moderate Palestinians and "help those committed to peace to deliver for their people in the here and now" at a time when the U.S. is hoping that a fragile cease-fire Egypt sealed last week between the Jewish state and Hamas will prove durable. On Israel's settlement announcement Friday, she said "these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace."
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 met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Washington on Friday. She also spoke to Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, a key mediator.
Clinton reiterated strong U.S. support for Israel, while also reassuring the Palestinians that Washington remains 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 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. Hamas and other groups in the Gaza Strip have fired thousands of rockets at Israel in recent years.
"A lasting ceasefire is essential for the people of Israel, whose communities lie in the path of these rockets," Clinton said. But she added that Gazans deserve better, too. "Just as Israel cannot accept the threat of rockets, none of us can be satisfied with a situation that condemns people on both sides to conflict every few years. Those who fire the rockets are responsible for the violence that follows, but all parties in the region have a role to play in keeping the peace."
Clinton called on Egypt, specifically, to prevent new weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. And she demanded that U.S. allies that have grown closer to Hamas, such as Turkey and Qatar, make clear to Gaza's rulers that confrontation is no one's interest.