- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Israel of undermining U.S. credibility as a Middle East peacemaker on Monday on the eve of critical talks between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel recently announced new housing plans for East Jerusalem, an expansion that the Obama administration has strongly criticized. Mrs. Clinton renewed that disapproval, telling a pro-Israel audience that provocative Israeli land policies in areas claimed by Palestinians are not in Israel’s long-term interests.

Nonetheless, Mr. Netanyahu planned to take a firm stand Monday night, stressing that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “not a settlement,” government spokesman Mark Regev said.

Mr. Netanyahu was to speak to the same American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Mrs. Clinton addressed earlier.

The spread of Jewish homes on land claimed by the Palestinians threatens the Obama administration’s first attempts at shuttle diplomacy intended to establish an independent Palestinian state, Mrs. Clinton said, and makes it hard for the United States to be an honest broker.

“Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She also criticized Palestinian incitements to violence.

Mr. Obama has remained out of the fray as Mrs. Clinton and other U.S. officials have rebuked Israel for a particularly large housing announcement that seemed timed to embarrass the United States and perhaps to smother the new talks with a U.S. go-between before they began. The talks would be the first formal peace efforts since the election of a Democratic administration in Washington and a hawkish one in Israel.

A meeting Tuesday at the White House will be Mr. Obama’s first with the Israeli leader since the severe diplomatic breach over the housing announcement earlier this month.

“We objected to this announcement because we are committed to Israel and its security, which we believe depends on a comprehensive peace,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton assured Israel that the U.S. administration’s commitment to its security and future is “rock solid” despite the division over the continued expansion of Jewish housing. Palestinians claim that the expansion is a land grab that will be impossible to roll back, leaving them less space and less desirable outlines for a future state alongside Israel.

“New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need,” she said.

“It exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit,” and undermines what she called an essential U.S. role as mediator.

Israel announced the East Jerusalem construction plans while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was visiting the country. It embarrassed Mr. Biden, usually a staunch supporter of Israel, and led to new stress in relations between Washington and its top Middle Eastern ally.

Mrs. Clinton said talks with Mr. Netanyahu on steps Israel can take to restore confidence were under way.

Mr. Netanyahu has outlined some steps his government is willing to take, but he said Sunday that Israel would not halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Some Israeli officials say that while there will be no formal freeze, construction may be restricted, as in Mr. Netanyahu’s partial 10-month West Bank construction freeze.

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