Obama Administration Affirms Mideast Peace Remains Priority

Official hints U.S. opposed to PA unilateral declaration of statehood.

The United States remains committed to forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal despite electoral gains this week by Republicans who are traditionally more sympathetic to Israel, a U.S. State Department spokesman said Friday.

Barack Obama in Mumbai

Deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the Barack Obama administration still views the peace process as a priority and will work with Congress to see it through. "It's going to remain a priority for this administration. And obviously, we're going to work hand in glove with Congress to advance direct negotiations and to ultimately reach a settlement," he said.

"We remain convinced that ultimately the only way that we're going to get a comprehensive peace is through direct negotiations, and anything that might affect those direct negotiations we feel is not helpful and not constructive," Toner added. "Our goal remains getting both sides back into direct negotiations. Anything that might affect getting both parties back into direct negotiations we would discourage."

As talks stalled in late September, reports in the Israeli press suggested that U.S. mediators had promised to block action for a Palestinian state at the Security Council, as part of a package of guarantees in exchange for a promise to halt Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Toner would not confirm reports from Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said Thursday that mediator George Mitchell had asked for two weeks to try to convince Israel to freeze settlements.

Voters swept Republicans into control of the House of Representatives Tuesday and weakened the Democratic majority in the Senate in an election largely seen as a referendum on Obama's domestic policies. Although Israel enjoys broad support across both parties, Republicans are seen as taking a more hardline approach. The incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is strongly pro-Israel.

The Israeli government is hopeful that a Republican majority House come January will be able to alleviate the pressure Obama has placed on Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and to place a freeze on settlement expansions. "The fact that Obama lost the majority in the House of Representatives will play into Israel's hands," a senior Israeli official, quoted anonymously by Army Radio, said this week.

Obama: India not just a 'land of call centers'

Visiting India yesterday, Obama hailed the country as a vital source of U.S. growth and jobs as his administration announced relaxation of U.S. export controls to spur trade between the two countries.

"As we look to India today, the United States sees an opportunity to sell our exports in one of the fastest growing markets in the world. For America this is a jobs strategy," Obama said as he kicked off a 10-day tour of Asia.

"It is a dynamic, two-way relationship that has created jobs and growth and higher living standards in both our countries," he told business leaders.

Many Americans resent India as a "land of call centers and back offices," Obama said, a magnet that has siphoned jobs out of the U.S. economy, but that need not be the case.

In an address to a business summit, the president said U.S. companies were finalizing deals worth around 10 billion euros. "Today's deals will lead to more than 50,000 jobs in the United States," he said.

White House aide Michael Froman told reporters Obama would ease export controls imposed after India's 1998 nuclear tests, and support Indian membership of four key global nuclear nonproliferation regimes.