TEL AVIV // Washington's Middle East peace quest appeared to stumble further yesterday as a weekend visit to the region by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, highlighted the deepening rift between Israel and the Palestinians on the thorny issue of settlements. On Saturday, Mrs Clinton signalled that the United States accepted Israel's refusal to completely freeze settlement activity and endorsed the Israeli position that a renewal of peace talks must not hinge on a halt to construction. Her comments spurred disappointment among Palestinians and satisfaction in Israel.
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister and current head of the Palestinian government media centre, described Mrs Clinton's comments as "unhelpful" and warned that the new US position could hamper peace prospects. He said: "Palestinians believe that settlement activity and the negotiating process are incompatible and having both together will bring us back to the previous failed experiences of peace talks.
"If we resume talks without a settlement freeze that will be an indirect encouragement for Israel to proceed with settlement building, and in effect will legitimise such activity." Mr Khatib spoke one day after Mrs Clinton met Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, in Abu Dhabi and then flew into Israel for a five-hour visit to meet with the country's leaders. At a briefing with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, she hailed his "unprecedented" concessions on a "restraint" of settlement activity and contradicted the Palestinian position by stating that a renewal of peace talks should not be conditioned on a stop to settlement building.
Her comments were greeted with delight in Israel, where officials have been concerned at deteriorating ties with the country's staunchest ally because of the settlement issue. Yisrael Hayom, a right-leaning newspaper, ran the story of Mrs Clinton's visit yesterday under the headline "Diplomatic Hug". The mass-circulation Maariv noted that her statements signalled "the first time the Obama administration rejected the conditions set by the Palestinians for a resumption of talks" since Mr Netanyahu's government came to power in late March.
Mr Netanyahu, buoyed by the new US support for his stance, renewed his call for the Palestinians to drop their insistence on a settlement freeze before negotiations. Speaking before his weekly cabinet meeting, he said: "I hope very much that the Palestinians will come to their senses and enter the peace process. The peace process is an Israeli interest as much as it is a Palestinian one." Mr Netanyahu, who leads a predominantly right-wing governing coalition, has offered to limit building in the occupied West Bank to about 3,000 new settler homes that have already been approved by the government and has adamantly refused to freeze construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
Mr Abbas, however, appears unlikely to depart from his demand for a total construction halt, especially because he wants to regain popularity among Palestinians before parliamentary and presidential elections in January. Mr Abbas's image has been badly tarnished by a growing perception among Palestinians that he repeatedly caves in to US demands and compromises on national interests. Any backtracking on the settlement issue could be a further political blow for him.
In Israel, meanwhile, several left-leaning analysts condemned Washington for backing off its previous call for an Israeli settlement freeze, saying the back-pedalling will do nothing to end the occupation. Gideon Levy, a commentator for Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, wrote in a commentary titled "America, Stop Sucking up to Israel": "As long as Israel feels that the US is in its pocket, and that America's automatic veto will save it from condemnations and sanctions, that it will receive massive aid unconditionally, and that it can continue waging punitive, lethal campaigns without a word from Washington, killing, destroying and imprisoning without the world's policeman making a sound, it will continue in its ways."
As the Obama administration's high-profile push for a revival of negotiations yields no success, some diplomats have said the United States may consider brokering indirect talks between the two sides. That option may come up in a possible meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu when the Israeli leader travels to Washington next week, Israeli officials have said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org