Israel is making "unprecedented" concessions on West Bank settlement construction, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Saturday after arriving in Israel in the latest U.S. bid to renew peace talks in the region.
The Obama administration had previously demanded Israel halt all settlement building before negotiations could resume.
But speaking at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton said there has never been such a precondition.
"It has always been an issue with negotiations," she said. "What the Prime Minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements which he has just described - no new starts for example, is unprecedented in the context of prior to negotiations."
"It's also the fact that for forty years, Presidents of both parties have questioned the legitimacy of settlements, but I think that where we are right now is to try to get into the negotiations. The Prime Minister will be able to present his government's proposal about what they are doing regarding settlements which I think when fully explained will be seen as being not only unprecedented in response to many of the concerns that have been expressed," Clinton went on to say.
The American secretary of state also urged Israel and the Palestinians to immediately renew stalled peace talks.
"I want to see both sides as soon as possible begin in negotiations," she said. "Both president Obama and I are committed to a comprehensive peace agreement."
Netanyahu, for his part, said that Israel while was willing to enter into peace talks without preconditions, the other side was not.
"We think we should sit around that negotiating table right away," he said.
He repeated the concessions he is willing to make: Israel will build no new settlement communities, expropriate no land for existing ones and limit the number of permits for new housing construction.
Netanyahu said Israel was ready to start talks right away and that the Palestinians could bring their objections about settlements to the negotiating table.
"What we should do on the path to peace is get on it and get with it," he said.
The prime minister also blasted the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze.
"But this is a new demand, it's a change of policy - of the Palestinian policy and it doesn't do much for peace - it doesn't work to advance negotiations," Netanyahu said. "It actually is used as a pretext or at least as something, as an obstacle that prevents the re-establishment of negotiations."
Clinton and Netanyahu met a few hours after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected a U.S. proposal for the renewal of peace talks. During the press conference, the secretary of state said the talks with Abbas were "very useful."
At the press conference, Clinton also touched on negotiations between Iran and world powers over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions, a significant cause of concern in Israel.
She said Iran should accept a deal that the powers have offered it on reprocessing enriched uranium, because Washington and its allies had limited patience.
"We are willing to work toward creative outcomes, like shipping out the low-enriched uranium to be reprocessed outside of Iran, but we are not going to wait forever," she said.
"Patience does have finally its limits and it is time for Iran to fulfill its obligations and responsibilities to the international community and accepting this deal would be a good beginning."
The top U.S. diplomat arrived in Israel on Saturday evening; she subsequently met in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Lieberman told Clinton that the Palestinian demand for a complete halt to West Bank settlement building was aimed at scuppering the peace process. He said the Palestinians had never demanded this as a precondition to peace talks before.
The foreign minister added that he had Netanyahu not to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians as long as they were promoting a damning United Nations report on Israel's winter offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
Palestinians rebuff U.S. bid to relaunch peace talks
Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said earlier that Clinton proposed a formula for renewing the talks during a meeting with Abbas earlier in the day in Abu Dhabi.
The proposal was for final-status talks to be relaunched on the basis of understandings over West Bank settlement construction reached between U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, and the Israeli government, according to Erakat.
At a news conference after the Abu Dhabi meeting, Abbas said he told Clinton there would be no new negotiations unless Israel froze settlement building, Israel Radio reported.
He added that Israel was crossing red lines in its recent suppression of disturbances on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, according to the report.
Ahead of the meeting, Erakat said that settlement building, which the Palestinians want Israel to halt completely, was the key to renewing peace negotiations, and that there were still differences between the two sides.
Over the course of the summer, Obama had hoped for a fast track to renewed peace negotiations. But Clinton reported to him on Oct. 22 that neither side had taken sufficient steps toward resuming the dialogue.
Clinton arrived in Abu Dhabi early Saturday after a three-day visit to Pakistan.
Obama held a joint meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas in New York in September, hoping it would persuade them to return to negotiations that had broken off more than a year ago.
In her report to the president in October, Clinton indicated that the Palestinians had strengthened security efforts and reforms of government institutions, but needed to do more to prevent terrorism and stop those who carry out or encourage attacks on Israel.
She has indicated that Israelis have eased Palestinians' freedom of movement and expressed a willingness to curtail the building of settlements in the Palestinian areas. The Obama administration, however, is demanding an end to all new settlement construction, which the Israelis have refused.
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