By Karen DeYoung and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 1, 2009
JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had offered "unprecedented" concessions on West Bank settlement construction in an effort to restart peace talks, a departure from the administration's earlier criticism of Israel and a possible signal of impatience with the refusal of Palestinian leaders to join negotiations.
At the start of a day of diplomacy that stretched from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected Israel's latest offer, relayed by Clinton, to curb most West Bank construction.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the plan would have excluded about 3,000 Israeli housing units under construction and would not have applied to East Jerusalem -- thus falling well short of what has become a firm Palestinian demand for resuming direct talks with Israel.
"The U.S. said that is the best they can get" from Netanyahu, even though the Obama administration considers settlements 'illegal and illegitimate,' " Erekat said. The Palestinians will not accept a resumption of talks on that basis, he said.
At a news conference here Saturday night with Netanyahu, Clinton did not comment on the Palestinian account of the talks she had earlier in the day with Abbas. She said the differences between the two sides on all issues should be negotiated face to face.
Those comments and others seemed to mark a final departure from early U.S criticism with Israel over settlements, which ultimately served to bolster Netanyahu with the Israeli public even as it raised -- unrealistically, as it turned out -- Palestinian expectations that a building freeze was in the offing.
The meetings came as the peace process appeared increasingly unlikely to achieve President Obama's stated goal of resuming direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by the end of the year. Clinton's objective on this trip seemed less to achieve any real breakthrough than to give the impression of continued effort.
But the Palestinian position, if anything, appears to have hardened in recent days, leaving Israel to portray itself as the more willing partner.
Abbas, under fire from constituents for previous compromises with the United States, the controversy over a U.N. report on alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza and recent Israeli home demolitions in Jerusalem, is regarded as having little room to negotiate on the key demand for a settlement freeze.
"I think the place to resolve differences of opinion is around the negotiating table," Netanyahu said. "We are prepared to start peace talks immediately," he said, calling for both sides to "get on with it and get with it."
Although she reiterated the administration's position that "all settlement activity" must cease, Clinton seemed unwilling to press the point as forcefully as she had in the past and joined Netanyahu in portraying the Palestinians as the spoilers.
She called for a resumption of talks "without preconditions" and suggested that the Palestinian demand for a halt to West Bank construction was an unreasonable obstacle.
That marked a change in tone from a trip here in March, when she sharply criticized Israeli settlement policies. After her initial public demands that Israel stop building in the West Bank, Clinton on Saturday praised steps taken by Netanyahu as "unprecedented."
Netanyahu, while demanding that some building in the West Bank continue, has said he would not approve any new settlements and would show "restraint" in expanding existing ones.
The Palestinians regard the land occupied by about 300,000 West Bank settlers as part of a future Palestinian state, and consider continued settlement activity an effort to influence negotiations.
Israel promised to halt settlements under previous international agreements, and Palestinian officials say they want those promises fulfilled.
But "what the prime minister has offered in specifics, of restraint on the policy of settlements, of no new starts, for example, is unprecedented," Clinton said. The two sides, she said, should sit down together so that Netanyahu "will be able to present his government's proposal."
Erekat said Clinton communicated the Israeli position in a two-hour meeting with Abbas in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, where the Palestinian leader had stopped on a regional tour to build Arab support. Clinton flew to Israel later in the evening for talks with Netanyahu.
A senior administration official traveling with her also declined to comment on the Palestinians' account.
State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley described the U.S. role as that of honest broker, saying Clinton and special envoy George J. Mitchell were speaking to both sides to help "narrow the gap" between them "to where negotiations make sense."
Clinton's stops in Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem were added after she left Washington on Tuesday for a seven-day trip -- the first three days in Pakistan and the last two to be spent at a conference with Arab leaders in Morocco. When the trip was planned many weeks ago, the days in the middle were left free for a possible stop in Afghanistan.
That possibility was ruled out when the Aug. 20 Afghan election proved inconclusive. The decision to skip Kabul was confirmed when a new election was scheduled for Nov. 7.