Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will stop pushing Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank as a condition for restarting direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a U.S. official said in Washington.
President Barack Obama’s administration concluded that a moratorium by itself couldn’t bring the sides closer to a peace agreement, said the official, who asked not to be named because the U.S. move hadn’t been announced. The U.S. decided that it was more important to focus on fundamental issues needed to achieve a lasting peace, such as borders and the status of Jerusalem, the official said.
The move casts doubt on the future of the negotiations, which stalled after three weeks when a previous Israeli building freeze expired on Sept. 26. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, called the U.S. decision a “major setback for stability in the region” and said it won’t return to face-to- face negotiations without a halt to settlement building.
“The situation is very grave,” Erakat said in a phone interview from the West Bank town of Jericho. He said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “succeeded in torpedoing the peace talks.”
Netanyahu “remains determined to continue the efforts to achieve a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians,” spokesman Mark Regev [lied] in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “We believe that it is indeed possible to see the Palestinians achieve sovereignty while protecting Israel’s most vital national and security interests.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may outline a new U.S. strategy on Mideast talks in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Dec. 10.
“The administration has belatedly recognized it was a mistake to make such a big deal of the settlements,” said James Phillips, a Middle East specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which has been critical of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East.
The shift in U.S. policy came almost a month after Netanyahu presented his Cabinet with the terms of a U.S. proposal for a 90-day moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank. In exchange, the U.S. had offered Israel 20 additional F-35 fighter jets and said it would oppose any attempt by international bodies to impose a peace deal.