WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is dropping its demand that Israel reimpose a temporary freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, a U.S. official said Tuesday, a setback for President Barack Obama and the Mideast peace talks he is seeking to push forward.
The change in direction comes in advance of meetings of U.S., Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington next week. U.S. negotiators no longer believe that insisting on a settlement freeze is the best way to proceed, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But it was not immediately clear what other proposals the Obama administration might put forward.
News reports said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would outline the new U.S. strategy in a speech on Friday.
The decision was likely to anger Palestinians, who have demanded an end to settlement construction to continue direct negotiations that were relaunched in September.
Obama is heavily invested in the Mideast peace issue, seeing progress there as key to improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
At Obama’s urging, the two sides launched face-to-face talks this fall, but they fell apart over the settlement issue. A temporary freeze on construction in disputed territory expired in late September, and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to renew it.
The U.S. has been pressing Israel to renew the freeze for three months, a period during which it hoped to negotiate the final borders of a Palestinian state. U.S. officials offered incentives including 20 stealth fighter jets worth $3 billion and a promise to veto anti-Israeli resolutions at the U.N. Security Council, including a possible effort by Palestinians to gain support for a unilateral declaration of statehood.
Netanyahu faced strong opposition when he brought the plan to his Cabinet last month. The Israeli government has not acted on it, and it is not clear whether the prime minister had the support to get it passed.
In the meantime, settler groups resumed construction in the West Bank.
Israeli media said Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a committee of the Knesset parliament that talks with U.S. officials over a settlement freeze had stopped because Washington was distracted by the WikiLeaks controversy and North Korea.