U.S. special envoy to the Middle East peace talks Martin Indyk issued a strong condemnation of Israel's settlement activity in the West Bank on Thursday night, saying that it could "drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality."
"Rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future," he said. "If this continues, it could mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state – and that would be a tragedy of historic proportions."
Indyk was speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's founders' conference, where he gave a review of the nine months of peace talks.
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In a carefully nuanced speech that blamed and praised both sides equally, the U.S. envoy said that, while both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had shown flexibility in the talks, the leaders "don't feel the pressing need to make gut-wrenching compromises."
If the U.S. is the only party with a sense of urgency, "the negotiations will not succeed," he said.
"The fact is both the Israelis and Palestinians missed opportunities, and took steps that undermined the process," Indyk stated. "We have spoken publicly about unhelpful Israeli steps that combined to undermine the negotiations. But it is important to be clear: We view steps the Palestinians took during the negotiations as unhelpful too."
Indyk's objective seemed to be the same as that of visiting U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who met both Netanyahu and Abbas earlier in the day: To prevent the situation deteriorating further and coax the sides back into negotiations.
"It is critical that both sides now refrain from taking any steps that could lead to an escalation and dangerous spiral that could easily get out of control," he said. "Thus far since the negotiations been suspended they have both shown restraint and it is essential that this continue."
Comparing the current negotiations with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger's peace-making with Egypt, Indyk said that American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry would never suspend military relations with Israel as Kissinger had done. "Those military relations are too important for both our nations," he said.
He added that the U.S.-Israel relationship had changed dramatically since Kissinger's day. "Only those who know it from the inside – as I have had the privilege to do – can testify to how deep and strong are the ties that now bind our two nations. When President Obama speaks with justifiable pride about those bonds as 'unbreakable' he means what he says."
Indyk said that he had seen many hopeful signs during the course of the negotiations – "moments of recognition by both sides of what is necessary." But it had not been enough to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.
"I have seen moments when both sides talked past each other without being able to recognize it," he said. "But I have also seen moments of genuine camaraderie and engagement in the negotiating room to find a settlement to these vexing challenges."
Indyk concluded by saying that he didn't know if or when the talks would resume, but he hoped that it would be soon.
"When [Netanyahu and Abbas] are ready, they will certainly find in Secretary Kerry and President Obama willing partners in the effort to try again – if they are prepared to do so in a serious way."