Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday said Israel must prove it is committed to the Mideast peace process with actions. But she brushed aside suggestions that relations with the main U.S. ally in the Mideast are in crisis over Israeli plans to build new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem.
Clinton said Israel must back up verbal pledges to talk peace with the Palestinians and improve an atmosphere poisoned by last week's housing announcement if stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are to be relaunched. She stressed that the U.S. remains committed to Israel's security despite current tensions.
Resolving what has become the most serious spat between the two countries in decades has become a top priority for the Obama administration as it strives to restart the moribund peace process with indirect, shuttle diplomacy by special Mideast envoy George Mitchell. Yet Clinton made clear that Israeli steps were needed first.
"We are engaged in very active consultations with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to the process," Clinton said. She had outlined various steps that Israel could take in a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday.
Netanyahu's office responded quickly, issuing a statement that read, "The government of Israel has proved its commitment to peace in the last year in words and in deeds."
Still, the lack of a direct formal reply from Israel forced the cancellation of special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell's planned visit to the region, the State Department said.
The department said Clinton expected to hear soon from Netanyahu, perhaps by Wednesday, about his response to specific demands she made in a tense phone call last week to repair damage caused by Israel's announcement of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israel's failure to respond directly to Clinton led Mitchell to indefinitely delay his travel plans. Mitchell had been scheduled to leave for Israel and the Palestinian territories this week to begin indirect talks between the two sides.
"We thought it was important to be informed by the Israeli positions on some of the issues that the secretary discussed with the prime minister," Crowley told reporters. Mitchell will not hold meetings with either side until after a meeting of the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers on Friday in Moscow, he said.
The announcement of the approval of 1,600 new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to be the capital of a future state, while Biden was in Israel deeply embarrassed the U.S. administration, and Clinton has called it an insult. The uproar has led many to believe that U.S-Israeli ties may be at their lowest point in history.
Clinton restated U.S. "dismay and disappointment" with the announcement but disputed the perception of the relationship in crisis.
"I don't buy that," she said. "I have been around a long time, not that long, but a long time. We have an absolute commitment to Israel's security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people who share common values and a commitment to a democratic future for the world."
Clinton said she remained confident Mitchell would return soon and begin shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"We'll see what the next days hold, and we're looking forward to Sen. Mitchell returning to the region and beginning the proximity talks," she said. She added that she thought Mitchell's "legendary patience will win the day as the process gets started again, because there is just too much at stake for both the Palestinians and the Israelis."