Clinton expresses frustration at Middle East impasse

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The Independent Online

Without suggesting a new path toward Middle East peace, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed frustration with the Israel-Palestinian impasse while insisting the Obama administration will "not lose hope."

She said the US will keep pressing for a solution, and she called on Israelis and Palestinians to set aside their differences.



"It is no secret that the parties have a long way to go and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires," she said in a dinner speech yesterday at the Saban Forum, a Mideast policy seminar sponsored by the Brookings Institution think tank. "And like many of you, I regret that we have not gotten farther, faster."



She spoke just days after the administration dropped an effort to persuade Israel to impose a temporary freeze on some settlement activity. The Palestinians insist that direct peace talks cannot resume until Israel halts settlement construction.



Clinton made clear that she believes the Israelis and Palestinians are ultimately responsible for settling their long conflict.



"Unfortunately, as we have learned, the parties in this conflict have often not been ready to take the necessary steps," she said. "Going forward, they must take responsibility and make the difficult decisions that peace requires. This begins with a sincere effort to see the world through the other side's eyes, to try to understand their perspective and positions. Palestinians must appreciate Israel's legitimate security concerns. And Israelis must accept the legitimate territorial aspirations of the Palestinian people. Ignoring the other side's needs is in the end self-defeating."



And she said the status quo is untenable.



"I know that improvements in security and growing prosperity have convinced some that this conflict can be waited out or largely ignored," she said. "This view is wrong and it is dangerous."



Following Clinton to the podium, Israeli Defense Minsiter Ehud Barak predicted that without an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the cycle of Mideast violence will be perpetuated. He said Israel needs the "political wisdom" to find a way to a two-state solution: a secure Israel existing side-by-side with an independent Palestinian state.



Clinton said he said that despite the latest setbacks, the US would not give up its effort to draw the two sides toward a final settlement. And she said the establishment of a Palestinian state through negotiations is "inevitable."



"We will push the parties to grapple with the core issues," she said. "We will work with them on the ground to continue laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state. And we will redouble our regional diplomacy. When one way is blocked, we will seek another. We will not lose hope and neither should the people of the region."



Clinton did not mention the administration's frequently repeated goal of achieving at least the outline of a final peace settlement by September 2011. That goal was set when Israeli and Palestinian leaders came to Washington in September to resume negotiations — a process that quickly broke down over disagreement on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.



She pledged to stay actively involved, but she offered no new strategy for achieving the peace deal that has eluded other US administrations.



"The United States will not be a passive participant," she said. "We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay, in good faith, and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps, asking 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."



That has been the US position all along.



Before her remarks, Clinton met the Palestinian prime minister, the lead Palestinian negotiator, the Israeli defense minister, Israel's former foreign minister and the UN special envoy for the region.



On Thursday, Clinton held lengthy talks with Israel's chief negotiator. The administration's special Mideast peace envoy will travel to the region next week.



She spoke just days after the US dropped its bid to persuade Israel to renew a freeze in West Bank settlement construction, a key Palestinian demand for returning to the talks stalled since an earlier slowdown expired in late September. The change in approach followed months of grueling diplomacy, administration officials say, that led them to conclude the focus on settlements over strong Israeli objections was a distraction from dealing with core issues such as security and borders.



Emerging from the State Department after his talks with Clinton on yesterday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blamed the Israeli government for the breakdown in talks and said the Palestinians would continue to consult with the US, the UN, the European Union and Arab League on how to proceed.



"They are alone responsible for the derailment of the peace process," Erekat told reporters. "The Israeli government had a choice between settlements and peace and they chose settlements." He said the Palestinian position was unchanged and offered no predictions as to what might be next.



US officials say their hope is to make progress on security issues and setting a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state in separate talks with the two sides, enabling a resumption of direct negotiations and an ultimate peace deal.



US envoy George Mitchell is to leave tomorrow evening for the Middle East for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He will also visit neighboring Arab states.

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