Though she suffered a major setback in the Middle East peace process this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she's not giving up. She says the U.S. will remain active trying to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians — even though their leaders aren't even talking to each other now.
Clinton had to shift gears after dropping her effort to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank as a way to draw Palestinians back to negotiations. Rather than accept defeat, though, she tried to lighten the mood at a dinner hosted by the Brookings Institution Saban Forum on Friday.
"You don't have to read secret diplomatic cables to know that we are meeting during a difficult period in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East," she said.
The Status Quo Is Not Sustainable
The secretary told the audience that she regrets that the two sides are still far apart. She used her speech to warn Israelis and Palestinians that the status quo is not sustainable. Clinton seemed resigned to the fact that the U.S. would have to shuttle between the two for now. She described it as two-way conversations, but said they will be substantial.
"The United States will not be a passive participant," she said. "We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay, in good faith, and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps, asking tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And, in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate."
Before giving the speech, the secretary held a series of meetings with Israeli officials and with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who blames Israel for the current impasse in talks.
"We are consulting in the aftermath of the Israeli government foiling the American efforts to continue with direct negotiations. The Israeli government had the choice between settlements and peace and they chose settlements," Erekat said.
Israelis argue that it was a mistake to make a settlement freeze a precondition for talks. Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, now a member of parliament, told the Israel Project this week that the U.S. needs an entirely new strategy.
"We lost two years speaking about the moratorium, speaking about the freeze, but nothing happened between the two sides in order to move to achieve a peace agreement," he said.
A New Strategy
Mofaz has been meeting with U.S. officials this week to lay out his plan to go step-by-step, focusing on borders and security first.
"The U.S. should take the initiative," he said. "They have to come and put on the table the idea of borders and security arrangements. The two sides should sit and discuss them in order to achieve an agreement about these issues, because we are very close to agreement about them."
But Palestinians don't like the idea of an interim deal and have been considering a different route to statehood — through the United Nations. Clinton argued Friday night that unilateral efforts at the U.N. are "not helpful and undermine trust." She repeated the U.S. line that there must be a negotiated settlement on all the core issues and said the U.S. can't want it more than the parties themselves.
"There is no alternative other than reaching mutual agreement," Clinton said. "The stakes are too high, the pain too deep, and the issues too complex for any other approach."
Her spokesman insists they are not back to square one — just changing tactics, for the moment.