At AIPAC conference, U.S., Israel try to lower tensions

A Palestinian laborer works on a construction site at a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem.
A Palestinian laborer works on a construction site at a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The United States and Israel on Monday attempted to get their relationship back on track after nearly two weeks of tension by continuing to disagree on Jewish construction in a disputed area of Jerusalem but pledging to press forward on peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the administration's stance before a leading pro-Israel group in Washington, then met one-on-one with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for more than an hour before he offered a sort of rebuttal at the same gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He met with Vice President Biden and is to meet with President Obama on Tuesday evening.

Israel on March 9 announced the construction of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to make their capital, during a goodwill tour by Biden, prompting a tense 45-minute phone call from Clinton to Netanyahu on March 12.

The administration has pressed Netanyahu for a reversal of the housing approval, gestures to the Palestinians and agreement to add Jerusalem and other final status issues to the agenda for indirect talks with the Palestinians being arranged by special envoy George J. Mitchell. Netanyahu appears to have accepted the latter two but rejected any concession on the first.

In a defiant speech Monday night before 8,000 cheering people attending the AIPAC conference, Netanyahu declared, "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital."

He added that nearly 250,000 Jews "live in neighborhoods that are just beyond the 1949 armistice lines," all within a five-minute drive from the parliament. "They are an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem. Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

Netanyahu said that Israel does not want to govern or rule the Palestinians, and "we want them as our neighbors, living freely in security, dignity and peace." But he reiterated that Israel would insist on keeping a military presence on the eastern border of any future Palestinian state.

Clinton used her speech before the AIPAC conference to defend the administration's pressure on Israel and to make the case that pursuing peace now is essential, because technological and demographic changes are putting Israel at risk and making the "status quo" unsustainable. Better rocket technology used by militants in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon is putting many Israeli towns and cities at risk, even those far from the border, she said. Long-term population trends means that one day, there will be more Palestinians under occupation than Jews in Israel.

"The inexorable mathematics of demography are hastening the hour at which Israelis may have to choose between preserving their democracy and staying true to the dream of a Jewish homeland," Clinton said. "Given this reality, a two-state solution is the only viable path for Israel to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state."

Clinton was greeted respectfully by the group, which has criticized the public spat with Israel, and won applause when she spoke of defending Israel's security, promised sanctions over Iran's nuclear program that "will bite," and criticized Palestinian incitement. "For President Obama, for me, and for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel's security and Israel's future is rock-solid, unwavering, enduring and forever," Clinton declared, as delegates stood and cheered.

But the crowd was largely silent as Clinton gave no ground on the administration's handling of the dispute over construction in Jerusalem.

Clinton signaled that the administration seeks to dampen the dispute with Israeli officials. She said that Netanyahu last week offered "specific actions" that Israel is prepared to take to rebuild confidence. "We are making progress, and we are working hard to keep the proximity talks moving ahead," she said.

She told AIPAC the United States objected to Israel's construction announcement because such actions undermine the administration's "essential role" in the peace process.

But Netanyahu appeared to knock that argument. "The United States can help the parties solve their problems, but it cannot solve the problems for the parties," he said. "Peace cannot be imposed from the outside. It can only come through direct negotiations in which we develop mutual trust."

Clinton asserted: "New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need."

Though the crowd was motionless during Clinton's defense of the administration's actions, she drew scattered clapping when she said: "This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it -- and staying there until the job is done."

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