January 9, 2010 in Nation/World

U.S. takes new Mideast tack

Most-contentious Israeli-Palestinian disputes taken up
Matthew Lee Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh conduct a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Friday laid out a bold shift in its Mideast peace strategy, stepping up pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to resume stalled talks by moving immediately to negotiations on the toughest issues dividing them, like the borders of a Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem.

On its face, a move to tackle those two defining and difficult issues that Israel has long refused to budge on would appear to be a major turnaround in longstanding American policy to push for incremental Mideast progress.

But U.S. officials stressed that the shift does not abandon the administration’s comprehensive approach to peace and said their overall aim is get the parties beyond daily disagreements and back to the negotiating table, where all issues would be discussed.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that dealing with those matters first would eliminate Palestinian concerns about continued construction of Jewish settlements in disputed areas.

After a meeting at the State Department, Clinton and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh called for negotiations to begin as soon as possible and be bound by deadlines.

“Resolving borders resolves settlements, resolving Jerusalem resolves settlements,” Clinton said. “I think we need to lift our sights and instead of being looking down at the trees, we need to look at the forest.”

Peace efforts in the past have tended to focus on broader issues, including Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and water, with the even more contentious matters like borders and Jerusalem being left for so-called “final status” talks.

Previous attempts to concentrate on the larger issues have ended in failure, notably the 2000 Camp David talks shepherded by former President Bill Clinton. At the end of the Clinton administration and through the eight years that George W. Bush occupied the White House, U.S. officials shot for nuanced progress on more modest matters.

On Friday, Judeh lent support to the new U.S. tack. “If you resolve the question of borders then you automatically resolve not only settlements and Jerusalem but you identify the nature on the ground of the two-state solution and (what) it looks like,” Judeh said.

Both Clinton and Judeh spoke out against new Israeli housing construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, saying it was damaging to the process.

Their comments came as the Obama administration’s special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell prepares to visit Europe next week and Israel and the Palestinian territories later this month to try to relaunch stalled negotiations. Mitchell will visit Paris and Brussels first to build support for the approach from European officials.

When he travels to the region, Mitchell is expected to be carrying letters of “guarantees” outlining the U.S. position.

The letters are likely to contain gestures to both sides. For the Palestinians, that would include criticism of settlements and the belief that the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War should be the basis of a future peace deal.

For the Israelis, they would acknowledge that post-1967 demographic changes on the ground must be taken into account, meaning that Israel would be able to keep some settlements.

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