Settlements Aside, Hillary Clinton Tries Yet Another Approach To Mideast Peace Though she suffered a major setback in the Middle East peace process, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she's not giving up. She says the U.S. will remain active to try to bridge the wide gaps between Israelis and Palestinians -- even though their leaders aren't even talking to each other now.

Clinton Tries Yet Another Approach To Mideast Peace

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

And we begin in this hour with a look at the paralyzed Mideast peace strategy of the United States. Secretary of State Clinton said that she's not giving up after suffering a major setback. She said the United States will remain active and try to bridge the wide gaps between Israelis and Palestinians, even though their leaders aren't even talking to each other right now.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton had to shift gears this week 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's Saban Forum last night.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. Secretary of State): Now, 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.

KELEMEN: The secretary told the audience that she regrets that the two sides are still far apart and 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.

Ms. CLINTON: The United States will not be a passive participant. We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps, asking the 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.

KELEMEN: 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 the talks.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Negotiator): 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.

KELEMEN: 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.

Mr. SHAUL MOFAZ (Former Israeli Defense Minister): We lost two years speaking about the moratoriums, speaking about the freeze, but nothing happened between the two sides in order to move forward and to achieve a peace agreement.

KELEMEN: 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.

Mr. MOFAZ: The U.S. should take the initiative. They have to come and put on the table the idea of borders and security arrangements. The two sides should sit and to discuss them in order to achieve an agreement about this issue, because we are very close to agree about them.

KELEMEN: Palestinians don't like the idea of an interim deal, though, and have been considering a different route to statehood - through the United Nations. Secretary Clinton argued last night that unilateral actions at the U.N. are, quote, "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.

Sec. CLINTON: There is no alternative other than reaching mutual agreement. The stakes are too high, the pain too deep, and the issues too complex for any other approach.

KELEMEN: Her spokesman insists they are not back to square one - just changing tactics for the moment.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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