Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, trying to coax Palestinian leaders to restart peace talks with Israel, said Saturday that Israel was offering “unprecedented” concessions to limit the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Clinton’s remarks moved the Obama administration closer to Israel’s position and further from that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has refused to return to negotiations without a total freeze on settlement activity on land Palestinians claim for a future state.
After a day of meetings with leaders of both sides, Clinton appeared no closer to ending the impasse.
Clinton met with Abbas in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, before flying to Israel. Abbas told reporters after the meeting that he had stuck to his position that “peace must have its commitments -- [that] being the complete halt to settlement building.”
Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh, added: “There was no breakthrough in the talks.”
The settlements, built on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War, have been a stumbling block in decades of efforts to end the conflict. The last round of U.S.-brokered talks broke off last December, in part because Palestinian leaders felt the process was undermined by ongoing settlement activity. Nearly 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
Palestinians contend that under a U.S.-backed 2003 peace plan, Israel is obliged to halt settlement growth.
President Obama called last spring for a freeze but, in the face of Israeli resistance, changed course. To the dismay of Palestinian leaders, Obama demanded only “restraint” on settlements when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas in September.
Speaking at a news conference with Clinton on Saturday, Netanyahu repeated the concessions he is willing to make: Israel will build no new settlement communities, expropriate no land for existing ones and limit the number of permits for new housing construction.
In previous statements, Israeli officials had said they would permit no more than about 3,000 new homes for nine months after a new round of peace talks starts.
Netanyahu said Israel was ready to start talks right away and that the Palestinians could bring their objections about settlements to the negotiating table.
“What we should do on the path to peace is get on it and get with it,” he said.
Clinton, a vocal advocate of a settlement freeze last spring, adopted a far milder tone as she stood beside Netanyahu at his Jerusalem headquarters before their meeting.
She concurred with two of his assertions at the news conference: that until this year the Palestinians had never made a settlement freeze a prior condition for peace talks, and that no previous Israeli leader had offered to limit settlement growth in advance of such negotiations.
“What the prime minister has offered in specifics on restraints on a policy of settlements . . . is unprecedented,” Clinton said.
She noted that Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington had consistently questioned the legitimacy of settlements, but said that was no reason to hold up talks.
“The important thing, as the prime minister just said, is to get into the negotiations,” she said. “I gave the same message today when I met with President Abbas.”
In an interview earlier Saturday with the BBC, Clinton said that although the Obama administration had “very serious questions about the settlements,” she understood why Israel builds them.
“It has to do with their security needs and fears, about trying to have a defensible perimeter around Israel,” she said.
Responding to Clinton’s comments, Abbas’ spokesman said, “There can be no excuse for the continuation of settlements, which is the main obstacle in the way of any credible peace process.”
The exchange appeared to leave Abbas isolated as the holdout in Obama’s Middle East peace initiative. Israeli officials say they believe the Palestinian leader may not want to compromise because he would risk losing support to his rivals in the militant Hamas movement before Palestinian Authority elections scheduled next year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Abbas’ control is limited to the West Bank. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has yet to agree on terms for holding elections.
On Saturday, Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said Clinton’s visit to the region was “destined to fail” because of U.S. efforts to isolate Hamas. The United States refuses to engage with the Islamic movement until it drops its advocacy of violence against the Jewish state.