Sunday, November 1, 2009

Clinton’s Praise of Netanyahu Signals New Tone in Peace Efforts

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of an Israeli position that fell short of a total settlement freeze moved the U.S. closer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance, while leaving Palestinians unimpressed and unwilling to resume peace talks.

During a four-hour stopover in Jerusalem this weekend -- wedged between visits to Abu Dhabi and Morocco -- Clinton praised Netanyahu’s readiness to exercise “restraint” in limiting new construction on the West Bank.

“While their offer falls short of our position, if acted upon, it would provide unprecedented restrictions on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on the ground,” Clinton told Bloomberg News in Marrakech, Morocco, where she starts talks today with Arab foreign ministers.

That was a departure from the secretary of state’s remarks in May after Netanyahu’s first Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama. Clinton said then that only a complete construction halt would be acceptable to the president.

“There’s no question that it’s a change of tone for the administration,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “First they were trying to bury Netanyahu and now they’re coming to praise him,” said Miller, who argued that the U.S. wasn’t tough enough on Israel in his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.

Netanyahu’s proposal to halt new building in the West Bank aside from construction in existing settlements to meet natural growth, as a precursor to talks, was something no previous Israeli leader has offered, Clinton said at a news conference in Jerusalem on Oct. 31.

“The Obama administration now has a better sense of what is viable in terms of Israeli politics, and have dropped from their vocabulary the insistence on a total settlement freeze,” said Mark Heller, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Miller said the Obama administration was making mistakes in its relationships with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“It does reflect an absence of a smart understanding of number one, the needs and requirements of the Arabs and Israelis, and number two, exactly what the focus of American efforts should be,” Miller said.

“Is it settlements? Is it normalization? Or is the main event getting an agreement which right now is not attainable between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the core issues?” he said.