Friday, April 16, 2010

Frustrated by more than a year of intense but failed diplomatic efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians to restart stalled peace negotiations, the Obama administration is turning up pressure on both sides to get them talking again.

In a speech Thursday marking the opening of a new Middle East think tank, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to call on both parties to prove they are committed to reaching a resolution to the conflict.

The State Department said Mrs. Clinton will urge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take risks for peace and warn that failing to do so would destabilize the region, with tragic costs.

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks to the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace were to come just two days after President Obama delivered a surprisingly downbeat assessment of the prospects for a U.S.-brokered peace agreement, saying the United States can’t help if Israel and the Palestinians decide they can’t negotiate.

The two sides “may say to themselves, ‘We are not prepared to resolve these issues no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear,’ ” Mr. Obama said Tuesday at the conclusion of a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. He said peace is a vital goal but one that may be beyond reach “even if we are applying all of our political capital.”

The United States is pushing for new Israeli-Palestinian talks in which the U.S. would be a go-between. Previous talks broke off more than a year ago, and despite shuttle diplomacy and unusual pressure on ally Israel, the Obama administration has been unable to reach even the modest goal of indirect talks that it had hoped would start last month.

Those talks have been on hold since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced the construction of new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.

The administration sharply criticized the announcement, which came during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., saying the construction plans hindered efforts to get talks back on track and damaged U.S. credibility as a peace broker.

Since the announcement, the Obama administration has postponed sending special Middle East envoy George Mitchell back to the region.

The announcement precipitated the worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli ties in years. Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged last week that the U.S. and Israel still have not ironed out their differences over construction in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli prime minister said both countries are still working to find a solution, but he defended his government’s plans for new housing in the disputed holy city, calling them part of a long-standing Israeli policy.

The administration’s strong criticism of its top Middle East ally has alarmed many of Israel’s supporters in the United States, particularly in Congress, where there have been bipartisan calls to ease tensions.

Administration officials have said that despite the furor, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is solid and the U.S. commitment to Israel’s defense is unwavering.

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