Clinton to Israel: Time to Deal With the Core Issues

Clinton made it clear that the prime minister must begin mapping out the borders of a Palestinian state in the coming weeks, even without direct negotiations with Abbas.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested in a speech on Friday that the United States will step up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move toward establishing a Palestinian state.

Also, in an unusual move, Clinton held an hour-long meeting in Washington with the head of the opposition, Tzipi Livni. Clinton made it clear that the prime minister must begin mapping out the borders of a Palestinian state in the coming weeks, even without direct negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton REUTERS Dec 10

"It is time to grapple with the core issues of the conflict on borders and security; settlements, water and refugees; and on Jerusalem itself," Clinton said in her speech at the Saban Forum in Washington.

"And starting with my meetings this week, that is exactly what we are doing. We will also deepen our strong commitment to supporting the state-building work of the Palestinian Authority and continue to urge the states of the region to develop the content of the Arab Peace Initiative and to work toward implementing its vision."

Clinton focused on simple messages: The peace process will continue, and the leaders must stop trying to find excuses and people to blame. The United States will only step up its efforts in the region. The bottom line, she says, is that a Palestinian state is an inevitability.

"So even as we engage both sides on the core issues with an eye toward eventually restarting direct negotiations, we will deepen our support of the Palestinians' state-building efforts. Because we recognize that a Palestinian state achieved through negotiations is inevitable," Clinton said.

The U.S. administration began on Thursday night by relaying messages to Netanyahu during a meeting with Isaac Molho, the prime minister's adviser. The United States is very serious and wants to advance the process, Clinton told Molho.

An Israeli source who was briefed on Molho's meetings said the Americans described them as "very bad," and Clinton made clear she will not let Netanyahu "water down" the talks and avoid submitting serious positions on the core issues.

Over the weekend, neither Netanyahu nor his office published any response to Clinton's speech.

Special U.S. envoy George Mitchell is due to arrive in Israel tomorrow, his first visit in four months. He will meet with Netanyahu tomorrow and with Abbas on Tuesday.

Several hours before her speech, Clinton sent Netanyahu another message by meeting with Livni in her State Department office for the first time since the establishment of the Netanyahu government. Clinton only met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak for 20 minutes in a side room at the hotel where the Saban Forum was held.

The Obama administration's dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's delaying tactics was evident in Clinton's speech. Contrary to the compliments she offered to Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, she had nothing good to say about the Israeli prime minister.

She said that one does not need to read secret diplomatic cables to know that the situation is difficult. "I understand and indeed I share the deep frustrations of many of you in this room and across the region and the world," she said.

"But rather than dwell on what has come before, I want to focus tonight on the way forward, on America's continuing engagement in helping the parties achieve a two-state solution that ends the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians once and for all, and on what it will take, finally, to realize that elusive, but essential goal."

Clinton said borders and security are of the highest importance, but also mentioned the thorniest of issues in U.S.-Israeli relations.

"The fate of existing settlements is an issue that must be dealt with by the parties along with the other final status issues. But let me be clear: The position of the United States on settlements has not changed and will not change. Like every American administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We believe their continued expansion is corrosive not only to peace efforts and two-state solution, but to Israel's future itself."

She later said that to "demonstrate their commitment to peace, Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop trying to assign blame for the next failure, and focus instead on what they need to do to make these efforts succeed.

"And to demonstrate their commitment to peace, they should avoid actions that prejudge the outcome of negotiations or undermine good faith efforts to resolve final status issues. Unilateral efforts at the United Nations are not helpful and undermine trust. Provocative announcements on East Jerusalem are counterproductive. And the United States will not shy away from saying so."

Offering condolences to the families of the victims in the Carmel fire, she praised the international contribution to the firefighting effort.

"Israelis are always among the first to lend a hand when an emergency strikes anywhere in the world. So when the fires began to burn, people and nations stepped up and offered help. It was remarkable to watch," she said.

According to Clinton, "The United States will always be there when Israel is threatened. We say it often, but it bears repeating: America's commitment to Israel's security and its future is rock solid and unwavering, and that will not change."

Like Bill Clinton who had spoken earlier, the secretary of state stressed that Iran is the greatest strategic threat to Israel and the region.

"The United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And along with our international partners, we have implemented tough new sanctions whose bite is being felt in Tehran .... We have also stepped up efforts to block the transfer of dangerous weapons and financing to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas," she said.

However, Clinton stressed that "Iran and its proxies are not the only threat to regional stability or to Israel's long-term security. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Arab neighbors is a source of tension and an obstacle to prosperity and opportunity for all the people of the region. It denies the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and it poses a threat to Israel's future security. It is at odds also with the interests of the United States."

Meanwhile, senior Palestinian figures said yesterday that Clinton should have clearly laid the blame for the failure of the talks on Israel. Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the PLO Executive Council, told Palestinian television that the United States has admitted to the failure of its policy for the first time since Vietnam, and that the party responsible for this failure was Israel.