The Obama administration is seeking 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 U.S. attempts at leadership on a Middle East peace strategy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met senior Israeli and Palestinian officials Friday, although each side has taken action that the U.S. had expressly warned against: the Palestinians seeking, and 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 campaigned for nearly two years to prevent the Palestinian action at the U.N., 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 Israelis for their conduct in Palestinian or disputed territories, 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 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, granting it its most significant upgrade in diplomatic status in its more than six decades of conflict with Israel. The U.S. 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." The U.S. is hoping that the fragile cease-fire Egypt sealed between Israel and Hamas after the one-week Operation Pillar of Defense will prove durable. Following Israel's announcement Friday of the plan to build 3,000 new units in the settlements, Clinton 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 former President George W. Bush brought leaders to Annapolis, Maryland, 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 Six-Day War, with agreed-upon 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 holy and which both sides claim as their capital.
But American efforts have been continuously stymied. The Palestinians will not enter direct talks until Israel halts the construction of new Jewish homes on lands they claim for their state, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government says there can be no preconditions on negotiations. Despite repeated pleas from Washington, both sides have pressed on with actions that have only made peace less likely and arguably strengthened hardliners' positions on both sides.
Hoping to steer diplomacy back to a path to peace talks, and away from the world spotlight of the U.N., Clinton met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Palestinian Authority 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 does not want to shut out the Western-backed government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas despite its disagreements, especially after Hamas gained wider legitimacy in the Arab world after Operation Pillar of Defense.
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 cease-fire is essential for the people of Israel, whose communities lie in the path of these rockets," Clinton said. But she added that Gazans deserved 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,” Clinton said. “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 was in no one's interest.