NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Secretary Clinton provided more detail on the new U.S. approach, making clear that the immediate resumption of direct negotiations between the parties was not possible.

Analysis: United States and Israel Coordinate Tactical Shift

For more than a year and a half, the Obama administration sought to limit or freeze Israeli construction east of the 1949 armistice lines as a first step toward resuming direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The administration officially abandoned this approach in early December. It now intends to focus its discussions with Israel and the PA on all of the core issues, including borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem. The United States expects Israel and the PA to lay out their respective positions to U.S. officials. America would then work with each side to help narrow the gaps between them, and may ultimately offer what it calls “bridging proposals” in order to enable the parties to reach agreement on particulars.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the shift in U.S. tactics. “It is good for Israel. It is good for peace,” he said. “To reach peace, we have to discuss the issues that are truly delaying peace," he added, mentioning "security arrangements, refugees, a Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state and many other issues."

At the time of this writing, the PA had yet to decide how to respond to the new American initiative.

The U.S. focus on Israeli construction began a few weeks after Netanyahu was sworn into office at the end of March 2009. “We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth—any kind of settlement activity,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on May 20.

After hearing the U.S. position on Israeli settlements, PA President Mahmoud Abbas went a step further, demanding a complete Israeli freeze east of the former Green Line as a precondition for resuming talks, even though Abbas himself—and PLO leader Yasir Arafat before him—had previously negotiated with successive Israeli prime ministers without a settlement freeze.

Nonetheless, in an effort to get Abbas back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu agreed, in Nov. 2009, to an unprecedented 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, offering to enter into direct negotiations on all core issues without preconditions. Abbas waited nine months before accepting Netanyahu’s offer. When the moratorium expired three weeks later, Abbas demanded that it be extended as a precondition for continuing the talks.

This past fall, the administration sought to accommodate Abbas’s demand. But its efforts proved unsuccessful, in part because Abbas raised the ante by insisting that Israel halt all construction in eastern Jerusalem.

On Dec. 7, 2010, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley stated, “We thought for a period of time that the moratorium and then a resumption of the moratorium might be the best mechanism to advance a meaningful and sustained dialogue between the parties. We’ve come to the conclusion that that is not the best basis to move forward.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided more detail on the new U.S. approach in a Dec. 10 speech, making clear that the immediate resumption of direct negotiations between the parties was not possible. Instead, she outlined a strong American mediating role.

“The United States will not be a passive participant,” she stated. “We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.”

Within two days of Clinton’s speech, U.S. envoy George Mitchell was back in the region, meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas to explore their respective positions on the core issues. It is likely that Israeli and PA officials will also maintain frequent contacts with Clinton and other senior U.S. officials in Washington.

In consenting to discuss the core issues outside the context of direct talks, Netanyahu adapted his own position to match America’s. At the time of this writing, Abbas has conditioned his participation in these talks on the consent of the Arab League. It is therefore unclear whether this new format will get off the ground. BACK TO TOP