By JAY SOLOMON
MARRAKECH, Morocco — The Obama administration’s drive for Middle East peace risked a major setback as Arab nations warned of “failure” after a surprise U.S. shift away from insisting on a total freeze of Israeli settlement-building in disputed areas ahead of peace talks.
A furor in Arab capitals forced U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue a carefully worded statement from Morocco on Monday, asserting that U.S. policy on the settlement issue hadn’t changed. That didn’t damp the criticism.
“The Americans couldn’t bring something serious” on the settlement issue, said Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League and an Egyptian diplomat. “I’m really afraid we’re about to see failure….Failure is in the atmosphere.”
The disquiet was sparked by comments Mrs. Clinton made over the weekend in Jerusalem. She lauded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a partial freeze of building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, calling it an “unprecedented” move toward peace that should bring Palestinians to the negotiating table.
The Obama administration had repeatedly described a full freeze as critical to creating the conditions for progress on peace.The White House’s point man on the Middle East peace process, former Sen. George Mitchell, has been seeking to get a complete settlement freeze in exchange for Arab governments taking early steps to normalize their relations with Israel, such as establishing trade and telecommunications links.
The inability to secure those moves by either side has stalled one of the White House’s signature foreign-policy objects. A breakdown could have wider implications, undercutting President Barack Obama’s broader outreach to the Muslim world and potentially diminishing cooperation in areas like counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.
U.S. officials said they are continuing to push ahead with the peace process, and stressing to the Arab states that even a partial freeze is significant and should be seized upon. Mrs. Clinton will travel Tuesday to Cairo, in a hastily scheduled trip to make the same point to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key player in the peace process.
“Successive American administrations of both parties have opposed Israel’s settlement policy,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters in the resort city of Marrakech, arguing that her comments praising Mr. Netanyahu’s position didn’t amount to a U.S. reversal. “That is absolutely a fact, and the Obama administration’s position on settlements is clear, unequivocal and it has not changed.”
U.S. officials weren’t able to outline what steps they will take if the Arab governments don’t relent and agree to resume negotiations without the freeze. That appeared unlikely Monday. Palestinian officials stressed that they can’t be expected to take further steps and expect public support without that concession. Some analysts say the U.S. should wait until the completion of Palestinian elections next year until pushing again.
Arab leaders who had joined Mrs. Clinton at a regional development conference said there was a growing concern that Mr. Obama’s high-profile push for Arab-Israeli peace was veering off track. They said Mr. Obama’s election, and his strong statements on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, had fed broad hopes in the Middle East — now being questioned — that his administration could extract concessions from Israel’s government as part of an agreement establishing an independent Palestinian state.
The theatrics in Morocco imperiled a weeklong trip by Mrs. Clinton to the broader Middle East that initially was designed in part to relaunch formal peace talks. On Saturday, Mrs. Clinton met in the United Arab Emirates with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and pressed him to return to negotiations without the complete freeze.
She then met with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem and asserted that Israel’s commitment to limiting its settlement activity in the West Bank should be enough to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The perception she was now siding with Mr. Netanyahu rankled many Arab diplomats, who believe the Israeli leader isn’t committed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Mrs. Clinton “can praise Mr. Netanyahu if she wants,” said the Arab League’s Mr. Moussa, “but we’re not impressed. We see the policies of Mr. Netanyahu as a major impediment toward peace.”
Other U.S. officials working on the Middle East stressed that Washington hadn’t shifted policy. But one official acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton’s comments stoked the negative reaction from Arab leaders. Officials said she had taken a tougher line privately Saturday with Israeli officials during her meetings in Jerusalem.
In trying to clarify U.S. policy Monday, Mrs. Clinton said Israel’s partial commitment to freeze settlements “falls short” of the Obama administration’s desire. But she said it was still an important step.
“If it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful affect on restraining their growth,” Mrs. Clinton said. “This is an opportunity for both sides to try to move forward together, to get into negotiations, and to realize the goal that many of us around this table have supported and worked for for many years.”
After meeting late Monday with Arab diplomats to try to contain the damage, she said of Israel’s proposal, “It is not enough…It is not what many people in the region want to see. But it is fair to call it unprecedented.”
The Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, Riad Malki, said Monday in Marrakech that he was “happy” that Mrs. Clinton clarified her statements from Jerusalem. But he said it was still impossible for Mr. Abbas and the Palestinians to return to formal peace negotiations without the settlement freeze. The Palestinian public wouldn’t support the peace process without it, he said.
“We should not put the credibility and the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority again under jeopardy if the Palestinian Authority will accept anything less than a total freeze,” said Mr. Malki. “[It] will be detrimental to the future and the existence of the Palestinian authority as a whole.”
Mr. Abbas was widely criticized across the Arab world last month by initially agreeing to a U.S. request not to support a United Nations report that alleged Israel committed war crimes during its attack on the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, last year, in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Abbas reversed course, after facing domestic unrest, and ultimately supported pursuing the U.N. investigation. But Mr. Malki said his organization’s bending to U.S. pressure on this issue weakened Mr. Abbas.
“They started accusing my president and the Palestinian leadership of treason [and]of selling the suffering of the Palestinian people in exchange of one item and another,” said Mr. Malki.
Mrs. Clinton also discussed the growing threat of Iran’s nuclear program with her Arab counterparts Monday, according to senior U.S. officials. The discussions came as there is growing concern that Tehran will reject an Obama administration proposal to better monitor Iran’s fissile material by shipping the majority of Tehran’s low-enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing.
Arab diplomats have repeatedly said their ability to pressure Iran, and support sanctions, could be constrained if there isn’t any progress on the Arab-Israeli peace track. They have said Arab governments could be attacked by their publics for conspiring with Israel against another Muslim nation without getting anything in return.
Mrs. Clinton stressed Monday that the U.S.-backed offer to Iran wouldn’t be amended further, as Tehran has indicated it wants. “We urge Iran to accept the agreement as proposed. We are not changing it,” she said at the news briefing.
Write to Jay Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s about time!
I am happy to see the U.S. recognize that the Arabs are the obstacle to peace in the Land of Israel.