US President Barack Obama's administration welcomed Israel's decision Wednesday to freeze new construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank temporarily as a step toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement following the security cabinet vote declaring that the building halt "helps move forward toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
The US has been pushing Israel for a complete settlement freeze, including in east Jerusalem, as a way to rejuvenate long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The US has also wanted the Palestinians and Arab countries to make gestures in exchange - a program they continue to push - to restart the negotiations.
While US Mideast envoy George Mitchell noted that the "unilateral decision" announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu "falls short" of American demands as well, he added, "We believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground," particularly in the goal of moving toward negotiations.
Mitchell, in a press briefing following Netanyahu's remarks, stressed that the US remained committed to the immediate resumption of negotiations on final-status issues, and suggested that it might be possible to work out the question of borders on the way to an agreement on other issues.
"My personal and fervent wish is that we will, during this process, at some point, have a resolution of the issue of borders, so that there will no longer be an question about settlement construction, so that Israelis will be able to build what they want in Israel and Palestinians will be able to build what they want in Palestine," he said.
Several interested parties and observers to the process have been raising the idea that the contours of the borders should be worked out first, as a way of providing a concrete achievement, arguing this issue might be the simplest of the final-status quandaries to resolve.
Mitchell urged that the talks be "time-limited," a key Palestinian contention, later saying that many of the differences between Israelis and Palestinians over the contours of the negotiations have been worked out.
"We have closed many gaps between them. And while, admittedly, important differences remain, we've made very substantial progress," according to Mitchell, who noted he would continue to address the issue in his upcoming return to the region after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Given the difficult political realities on the ground, Mitchell advocated approaching negotiations from "a variety of tracks," including high-level direct talks "that establish the framework and set the tone"; parallel talks with the US about key issues; and lower-level direct talks "where the details of issues are often worked out."
Asked about Palestinians' immediate rejection of the moratorium as a means of moving to talks, Mitchell responded, "We believe that the best way forward is to relaunch negotiations in an atmosphere in which they can succeed. We will encourage both sides to continue to take steps that will lead to that result and enable us to begin negotiations."
Mitchell also said that the US would like to see Abbas stay on, despite his threat to not run in future elections without a total settlement freeze in place.
Mitchell also indicated that the US would like to see additional regional peace talks, noting that he has met with both Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar Assad about the American interest in seeing their two countries come to the negotiating table.
"We are attempting to find a mechanism on which both can agree, because we think it's important that they begin the process. We want them to do so, we want to support that effort in any way that we can, and that will continue," he said, pointing out that Israel would like direct talks without preconditions, while Syria wants indirect talks.
The US also hopes to bring more Arab states into the process once bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians start.
"We believe we've gotten a good response to a multilateral track in which some of the governments of the region would meet to discuss regional issues that they have in common, such as energy and water," he said. "It won't occur before then, but if direct negotiations can get under way, we believe this could occur."