U.S. abandons push for renewal of Israeli settlement freeze

By Karen DeYoung
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 1:36 AM

The Obama administration has abandoned its effort to persuade Israel to renew a settlement construction freeze, which U.S. diplomats had hoped would invigorate moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

With senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators scheduled to hold talks in Washington next week, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton due to deliver a major Middle East speech Friday, it was unclear what direction the administration's policy will now take.

U.S. officials who briefed reporters here and in Jerusalem on the condition of anonymity said Tuesday that the administration had taken off the table a package of political and security incentives offered to Israel in exchange for a 90-day freeze on West Bank settlement construction.

The expectation had been that the three-month freeze would provide breathing space for Israeli-Palestinian negotiators to gain momentum in talks on issues including the borders of a Palestinian state.

The United States ultimately decided not to comply with an Israeli request to put its offer in writing, including $3 billion worth of jet fighters, a commitment to object to anti-Israel resolutions in international organizations, and an agreement never again to ask for a suspension of settlement construction.

Although the freeze is one of their key demands, Palestinian officials had refused to resume talks on the basis of the partial freeze under discussion, one that did not include a halt to Israeli building in East Jerusalem.

An Israeli official said that while negotiations over the package had embroiled Israel and the United States in a time-consuming effort, the proposal hadn't really moved the Palestinians and thus was fruitless.

U.S. officials sought to play down the importance of withdrawing the moratorium offer, saying that talks next week would move directly to "core issues," including land boundaries. "That is going to be the next step," said a U.S. official who was authorized to brief reporters on the condition of anonymity. "We are going to immediately engage with both sides on substantive negotiations."

Isaac Molcho, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's special envoy to the talks, arrived in Washington on Tuesday, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will be here later in the week. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are scheduled to attend a conference this weekend of the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institution, where Clinton will speak Friday.

When Israel initially agreed to a 10-month freeze on new West Bank settlement construction late last year, U.S. officials expressed certainty that it would be extended once negotiations got underway. But direct talks did not start until September, just at the point the moratorium was set to expire.

Before the incentive offer was taken off the table, Barak told an Israeli parliamentary committee that Israel had "not reached an understanding with the United States on how to resume the construction freeze." He said that the administration still needed congressional approval but had been distracted by the WikiLeaks scandal and the crisis between North Korea and South Korea.

Asked about Barak's comments, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israel's government had been "fully occupied" in recent days with a major forest fire there.

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