The United States responded with lukewarm praise Wednesday night to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement of a "painful but necessary" decision to freeze all new construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria in a last-ditch attempt to revive final status talks with the Palestinian Authority.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded within moments of Netanyahu's announcement, issuing a statement of approval for the decision. Middle East envoy George Mitchell added minutes later at a news briefing in Washington D.C. that "it falls short of a full settlement freeze," but still is "more than any other Israeli government has done before."
Clinton said in her statement, issued from her office at the State Department, that the decision by Israel's Security Cabinet would help "move forward toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," although she made a point of including the list of conditions Israel has yet to meet in order to satisfy the Obama administration's vision for Middle East peace.
"We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements," said Clinton.
"Let me say to all the people of the region and world: our commitment to achieving a solution with two states living side by side in peace and security is unwavering," Clinton's statement concluded.
Mitchell also said that although the decision did not fully suit the United States, "we believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground."
The envoy noted that the Netanyahu government was the first to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria. "For the first time ever, an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all new construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. That's a positive development."
The envoy said that the freeze was "more than any Israeli government has ever done before, and can help movement toward agreement between the parties." Mitchell later made a point of adding, "Nothing like this occurred during the Bush administration."
He added, however, "This is not an agreement with the United States, nor is it an agreement with the Palestinians. United States policy on settlements remains unaffected and unchanged. As the President has said, America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. We recognize that the Palestinians and other Arabs are concerned because Israel’s moratorium permits the completion of buildings already started and limits the effect of the moratorium to the West Bank – concerns which we share.
"The United States also disagrees with some Israeli actions in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in areas such as housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes," Mitchell went on, in response to another question by a reporter. "The United States has not accepted and disagrees with any unilateral action by either party which could have the effect of preempting negotiations."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also underscored the point in a statement released earlier in the day by his office: "This enables us to present the world with a simple truth: The Government of Israel wants to enter into negotiations and it is very serious about its intentions to advance peace."
Pan-Arab Involvement in the Process
Mitchell noted in his briefing that President Barack Obama's ultimate goal is to involve all of the Arab nations in the negotiation process with Israel, not just the Palestinian Authority. He also stressed that none of them have been expected to fully normalize relations with the Jewish State in return for her participation in the process.
"As I mentioned briefly in response to an earlier question and in my remarks, we have asked all of the Arab governments to join in the effort in support of the Arab Peace Initiative to take steps toward normalization of relations with Israel. We’ve not asked anyone to take the final step of full normalization.
"What we’ve asked is gestures, actions, statements and movement in that direction," he said. "For example, we are seeking, and we believe we’ve gotten a good response, to a multilateral track in which several governments of the region would meet to discuss regional issues that they have in common, such as energy and water, which would follow the resumption of direct negotiations. It won’t occur before then, but if direct negotiations can get underway, we believe this could occur.
"This would operate to the benefit of everyone in the region, whatever country they happen to live in, because it would help to deal with these important issues that they all face in common," Mitchell said. We think that increased contacts between political and nonpolitical leaders, cultural and other exchanges, trade relations and other forms of contact for mutual benefit, all of that can form an ever-strengthening web of support for the concept of normal relations throughout the region."